Why You Make Poor Decisions
If you’ve ever agonized over a big decision—what car to buy, whether to break up with your girlfriend—you may have waffled back and forth more than a politician during election year.

August 16, 2011

But you might be making your choice more complicated than it has to be—even if you eventually make the best pick—according to the Journal of Marketing Research.

In the study, researchers asked volunteers to make a variety of weighty decisions, selecting things like jobs and doctors. Even when one option was clearly better, study participants wavered between them, according to study author Rom Schrift, Ph.D., from the University of Pennsylvania.

What trips you up? Here’s what the research found happens when faced with a weighty decision:

1. You make unimportant qualities more important. Things didn’t matter to us before we started an apartment search—like, having a doorman in our building—suddenly become a critical factor when we’re deliberating between two pads (even if the one with the doorman is smaller and more expensive).

2. You make the less-attractive choice seem better. You know your girlfriend’s a 10; plus, she makes you laugh. But when you start deciding whether to commit, suddenly every stranger walking by looks hotter.

3. We randomly reverse our preferences. Imagine you get two job offers, and one is clearly a better gig. And then you hear that the first job has you working in a three-person team; the other, a six-person team. Shouldn’t matter, right? Except that in the study, participants suddenly felt a strong pull toward whichever staff size was associated with the worse job.

The kicker? In most cases, people end up choosing the “right” option—the bigger apartment, the better job—after all the hemming and hawing.

But in real life, if you deliberate too long, the consequences could be dire. “When we think about things like jobs, spouses and houses, they’re the opportunities of a lifetime,” says study co-author Oded Netzer, Ph.D., at Columbia University Business School. “There are situations where good opportunities present themselves in very short periods. Complicating things causes us to not grab these great opportunities.”

Don’t drown yourself in indecision. Try these expert-approved ways to make your next big choice the right one—the first time.

Use a 1 to 10 scale: “Prior to even engaging in the search, sit down with yourself and think about what is really important to you,” says Schrift. Rate each attribute—a university’s reputation, a job’s paycheck—one to 10 based on how much you value it. Only then should you consider your options, rating each one based on the criteria you committed to in advance, says says David Welch, Ph.D., author of Decisions, Decisions: The Art of Effective Decision-Making, who wasn’t involved with the research. Welch even has a spreadsheet to help you do it, at www.decisionhelper.com.

Ask a friend’s opinion: Distance yourself from the problem. We don’t complicate other people’s decisions, just our own. So ask some clear-minded friends to weigh in on your situation, Schrift recommends.