I am an incredibly indecisive person. I exhaust myself emotionally on a regular basis doing endless research on a service or product I need, or hammering my brain trying to decide if I want to go out with friends or relax and watch TV on a given evening when I’d enjoy myself either way. If I could take back all the hours I’ve spent combing through health store shelves reading the back of every skin care bottle, scouring the internet for alternatives to a program I want to make sure I get the best one, or otherwise agonizing over a trivial decision, I could probably go on a months long exotic vacation, which would be a much more enjoyable and productive use of my time.
So when a thread of links led me to this article from Wired, I immediately thought, “Wow, I can SO relate!”
The gist of the article is this: our brains naturally confuse the difficulty of a decision with the importance of a decision. So when you’re standing in front of a wall of hand lotion in CVS and still find yourself there 20 minutes later, your brain, overwhelmed by the number of alternatives, has been tricked into thinking your choice of moisturizer could make or break the next 10 years of your life. Here’s what the researchers quoted in the article have to say about it:
“Our central premise is that people use subjective experiences of difficulty while making a decision as a cue to how much further time and effort to spend. People generally associate important decisions with difficulty. Consequently, if a decision feels unexpectedly difficult, due to even incidental reasons, people may draw the reverse inference that it is also important, and consequently increase the amount of time and effort they expend. Ironically, this process is particularly likely for decisions that initially seemed unimportant because people expect them to be easier.”
What can be done about this? Unfortunately, this seems to be just the way our brains are wired. But hearing a scientific explanation makes me feel a lot better. Next time I find myself frozen in the soap aisle of the grocery store, or three days deep in research on an app that costs 99 cents, I’ll try to remember to ask myself, “Is this decision really important?” It’s certainly not worth beating myself up for having an indecisive personality.
For a more in-depth explanation, be sure to check out the original article. The author, Jonah Lehrer, has also written a very interesting book that I’ve read called Imagine, which is a scientific look at the creative process.