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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

The Problem with Making Decisions

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Aug 18th 2007

All of us face decisions on a daily basis. For example, should I buy that stock or will I lose money? If I do not buy that stock and the value goes up will I kick myself for having lost out on an opportunity? Should I place a bet on the New York Football Giants in the annual betting pool this year? If I win I'll feel like a genius and make few bucks but if I lose the money won't matter but I'll feel disappointed. You get the idea that decisions range from extremely important to minor types of things.

How do we make decisions? Years of research have been done to answer this question and it seems that we use a variety of tactics including learning from past experiences and applying those to our choice all the way to making the sensible and predictable choice expected by our community.

One of the major factors that goes into decision making is the degree to which we expect to feel either regret or rejoicing as an outcome of our choice. This emotional component makes it difficult for some people to either make a choice or to make a choice without worrying about the outcome. The August 2007 issue of Psychological Science reported two experiments that explored the accuracy of the regret or joy people predicted they would experience in connection with the outcomes of their decisions. The finding of each of the studies was interesting:

1. Those who had made bad predictions and expected to feel filled with regret if that was the outcome did not feel the anticipated regret and,

2. Those who predicted they would feel joyful or happy as a result of a successful choice did not feel as expected when they learned their choice was the right one.

So, what is to be concluded from these results with regard to decision making?

It is not worth worrying about whether you feel good or bad if your choices prove to be right or wrong because people are not accurate about how they will feel. Therefore, why worry about it?

Those of us who tend to be obsessional need to think about the results of the research. The reason for this is simply that, in attempting to make a decision, we expend a lot of time and energy worrying about how we will feel if our decision is incorrect. I have worked with so many people who fear choosing a color of a car because they might learn, later on, that they like another color much better. It's not worth worrying because we cannot know that we will feel bad. In fact, as the research says, we will not feel either terribly bad or good but will accept the results.

What is that old song, "Don't worry, be happy?" Well, with regards to decision making it’s true.

Your comments are welcome.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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