If you’ve ever had to make a tough choice or just one where you weren’t sure what to do but really wanted to make the best decision, the odds are you’ve felt it at least partially. Decision paralysis (also known by the catchier analysis paralysis) is a state of over-analyzing a situation or decision up to the point where it actually prevents you from taking a decision, or it influences you significantly.
As a term, “analysis, paralysis” was featured in an 1803 pronouncing dictionary and later editions stating how those words are pronounced similarly. It rolls quite nicely off the tongue, and it also helps make it more memorable. Since the term was first coined, researchers have spent a lot of time looking at this phenomenon and, as it so often happens, they only have partial responses.
This phenomenon typically manifests through inaction, indecision, and an excessive tendency to weigh the options and consequences you have at hand before making up your mind. This experience can be frustrating and dangerous, and it can affect your professional and even personal life.
But like many things, decision paralysis can be overcome through a conscious effort.
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Imagine you got accepted into a good university. It’s not that expensive, it’s fairly close to home, and you’ve also got a friend going there. But you’ve also been accepted by your dream university, except it’s more expensive, it’s very far from home, and you don’t know anyone there. How do you decide?
Such a decision can be daunting. Not only will it affect the next few years of your life, but it could set your life on an entirely different course, and you don’t have enough information to know for sure what the best course of action is. It’s exactly the kind of situation that can lead to decision paralysis, rendering you unable or unwilling to make a decision, quite possibly until it’s too late.
Another common example is in romantic relationships. When someone is in a relationship they’re uncertain they want to continue, they can spend so much time overanalyzing it that they just get stuck in it and don’t take action.
But decision paralysis can also show up in less impactful decisions, like deciding where to go on a weekend or what product to buy. It can happen when you have a big workload and aren’t sure where to start, when you’re looking at a menu and trying to decide what to order, or with a million daily stressors. In fact, we probably experience mini-decision paralysis more often than we think.
As so often happens, it’s our brain playing tricks on us.
Why does decision paralysis happen?
Choice can be demotivating.
In the year 2000, two researchers named Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper carried out a remarkable study. The study was simple in design: they had shoppers at an upscale food market see a display table with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. The shoppers were offered samples and then they received a coupon for $1 off of any jam. Then, on another day, they did the same thing — except instead of 24 jams, there were only 6 jams, but everything else was unchanged.
The large display attracted way more interest than the small one. But when it came to buying, the people on the large jam display were 10 times less likely to buy any jams.
So what gives?
As it turns out, being overloaded with options (or with tasks or with anything else that involves decisions) can make people less likely to act. Too many options can prevent you from moving forward. Basically, more choice isn’t always a better thing — contrary to popular belief.
“Current psychological theory and research affirm the positive affective and motivational consequences of having personal choice,” the study authors note. “These findings have led to the popular notion that the more choice, the better–that the human ability to manage, and the human desire for, choice is unlimited. Findings from experimental studies starkly challenge this implicit assumption that having more choices is necessarily more intrinsically motivating than having fewer.”
This is obviously important if you run a supermarket or work in marketing, but decision paralysis isn’t just about buying things — although it’s hard not to feel decision paralysis when faced with a thousand nigh-identical toothpastes. For instance, a study in Sweden has found that when offered multiple retirement investment options, people are less likely to opt for any investment, and overchoice is often seen as a burden.
An old problem
Although our modern lifestyles can exacerbate decision paralysis, this isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s described in one of the most famous ancient fables by the Greek Aesop. Aesop told the story of The Fox and the Cat, where the fox boasts of “hundreds of ways of escaping” while the cat has “only one”. When they hear the hounds approaching, the cat runs up a tree, its only escape method; meanwhile “the fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds”. The fable ends with the moral, “Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon”.
Another famous example is the so-called Centipede’s dilemma. The dilemma comes in the shape of a poem:
A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.
The centipede doesn’t know which leg comes when. It can walk, but when it stops to think about how it walks, it becomes unable to do it. If we move this to our toothpaste analogy, you can probably go to the supermarket and pick a toothpaste quite easily. But if you stop and think why you pick this one out of any other of the hundred options, you may have a hard time explaining it.
The famous French philosopher Voltaire was also well aware of the problems that can arise from decision paralysis. Voltaire popularized an old Italian proverb in French (from where it was picked up in a dozen other languages): “Perfect is the enemy of good.”
Herein lies another clue to the nature of decision paralysis: perfectionism.
The inner workings of decision paralysis
We’re hard-wired to want to make good decisions. Some may be more perfectionist than others, and some may have a more innate (or trained) ability to deal with decisions, but deep down, our cognitive ability drives us to try and make good decisions. But sometimes, it’s not clear what makes a choice better than another.
The choice overload or choice complexity, which involves how different choices are presented, how different they are from one another, how many options we have, how we value the different outcomes, and trying to compute that all in a given space of time — that’s how you get overwhelmed. Sometimes, there are simply too many things to consider, and it’s not always clear how to value different types of things. For instance, if you’re trying to get takeaway, how do you value a healthier dish versus a tastier one? What if price is a consideration, and you’re not sure how spicy one of the foods is? Add in a hundred different cuisines, delivery time, and a partner or group of friends you’re trying to decide with, and it seems crazy we decide anything at all.
In fact, decision paralysis is a form of cognitive overload: your brain is simply trying to figure something out and draining its cognitive resources (brain power) to consciously process all the options and consider all the information and implications to optimize the choice. Sometimes, pushing through can offer value — sometimes, it’s worth it to try and optimize your decision; but many times, it’s not. It makes little difference what you order or what toothpaste you get; you don’t always need to make the best decision, you just need to make one that’s good enough. You don’t need to have a hundred ways of escaping, you only need to have a good one. In fact, oftentimes, this process can be tiring and can lead to further analysis paralysis down the road.
Decision fatigue, decision paralysis
In another study, participants were asked to estimate how many food decisions they make daily, and they greatly underestimated the number — by over 200. We make a lot of decisions every day, from the food we want to eat to life-changing decisions.
Decision fatigue is not the same as decision paralysis, but they can be related — and one can cause the other.
Imagine that you have a jar of decision-making energy. Decision fatigue basically means that with each decision, you empty your jar of decision-making energy, and you get more and more tired of deciding things the more decisions you make. It’s one of the important reasons why people make irrational decisions: they’re just tired of making decisions. There’s a delicate balance that’s difficult to strike here: people who lack choices will fight for the right to have more options, but people who have too many options can find them psychologically aversive.
This seems to affect everyone or most people to some extent. Major politicians and businessmen, brilliant researchers, all seem to be affected by this — and they’re aware of it. The brilliant physicist Richard Feynman wrote how he became aware that even choosing what dessert to have was energy-consuming.
And what flavor? — Feynman wrote.
So he decided he’ll have chocolate ice cream from then on, and that was the only dessert decision he made. Former US President Barack Obama also wrote how he reduced his everyday clothing down to one or two items to reduce the number of decisions he had to make in a day.
It’s not exactly clear why decision fatigue and decision paralysis happen. It’s not the same as mental fatigue, but it also doesn’t seem to seem to be an innate trait — rather, it seems to be a phenomenon affected by decisional load. Put it this way: we all have a jar of finite decisional mana; for some it’s bigger, for some it’s not so big, but put enough strain on it, and it will reach its end — and once it reaches its end, we’ll start to to make less rational decisions, or just collapse. Some psychologists also call this idea ego depletion.
Studies also back this up. In 2005, researchers found that when people were forced to make a lot of decisions, they were less capable of solving a math task quickly. Another, more prosaic interpretation is that decisions come with responsibility, and responsibility is exhausting. In the long run, decision fatigue can lead to decision paralysis, especially if you have to make a number of decisions during the day.
Herein lies the first step towards fighting analysis paralysis.
How to fight decision paralysis
Fighting decision fatigue and limiting the impact it has on you starts with limiting the decisions to only significant does. Does something really not matter? Then why spend time and resources on it? You’ll only get decision fatigued and more prone to fall into paralysis or make irrational decisions.
In addition to reducing
- Have an algorithm. If you want to decide what food to get but don’t want to stick with one food item all the time, design a value system and stick to it. Is healthy food more important? Then prioritize that. Make your own system where you prioritize one thing over another and follow the rules you designed. Don’t overthink it! It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be good enough. You can always rethink your system as time passes, but prioritizing your choices does help.
- Reduce the number of choices ASAP. Oftentime, designing the algorithm won’t get you to a single individual choice, but rather to two or three choices. From these, you can actually analyze the pros and cons without feeling overwhelmed.
- You’re allowed to be instinctive or irrational. You don’t have to understand and optimize every choice you make. Feel like buying curry, but you’re not sure why you prefer it over pasta? Just get the curry. You don’t have to rationalize everything. Allow yourself to be whimsical with the small things and focus on what actually matters. Actually, this is one of the core ideas behind minimalism — letting go of the unnecessary so you can focus on the important things.
- Stick with what you know and create habits — but also step out of your comfort zone. New things can be interesting and fun; they make life worth living. But as we’ve seen, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. Manage the balance between establishing healthy habits and a routine that saves time by automating decisions with the intrigue of trying new things and expanding your horizons.
- Trust your intuition. Your intuition isn’t perfect, but if you feel like making a decision, don’t waiver, try and go for it. Again, this especially applies to small decisions that don’t matter all that much — you may want to be careful about trusting your intuition in life-changing situations, but there too, your intuition can be a good advisor.
- Exercise making decisions. Decision-making is a skill, which means you can train it. If you’re facing problems with decision paralysis and want to set up a system (or follow any of the bullet points above), try it out and see how it works. Pick a test trial, like picking a series to watch or deciding on a clothing or food item and try it out. It’s not about the options and their merits, it’s about assessing your strategy and not spending endless time on things.
- Understand that failure and imperfection are normal. We’re all afraid of making the wrong choice and failing, but this fear can hold us back from achieving our goals. Indecision can have practical consequences, making us miss out on opportunities or make a worse decision. Understand that from time to time, you will make a less-than-ideal decision. You will fail. And, at the end of the day, it’s better to make a not-ideal decision than no decision at all.
- Give yourself time and don’t put extra pressure on yourself. Take it easy. Rushing into things and pressuring yourself rarely works.
Why decision paralysis matters
Struggling with decisions can be a problem that has very real impacts and can cascade into long-term mental challenges. Cognitive overload and ego depletion are real problems that can affect everyone, but by understanding the mechanisms that cause them and taking steps to overcome them, we can avoid getting stuck and make better decisions.
This matters because decision paralysis doesn’t only happen on an individual level.
An entire society or community can also be affected by decision paralysis. For example, a community may be unable to make a decision about how to address a pressing issue, such as climate change, because of the complexity of the issue and the potential consequences of different actions. This can lead to inaction and a failure to address the issue in a timely manner.
“Like all complex problems several perspectives are needed and any single answer would misrepresent the uncertainty, but let us not let paralysis by analysis be an obstacle to action on adaptation,” says Professor Jim Hall of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford in 2012. Hal and colleagues carried out a study and mentioned that even if we’re uncertain about all the ramifications of climate change, we shouldn’t allow this to prevent us from acting.
So whether it’s food or climate change, the paradox of overwhelming choices haunts us all. It’s a normal part of our cognitive behavior, and it’s one that we can work on and should be mindful of.
If you’ve made it this far, reward yourself with a dish or dessert you like. What would you like to have?