Reducing the Stress of Making Major Decisions

Submitted on May 26, 2010 - 2:36pm

A significant source of stress in life can come from struggling with major decisions. Complex decisions, such as whether or not to change jobs, to make particular investments, to agree to a recommended surgery, or to stay in a relationship, can result in increased tension, confusion, and psychological distress. While we cannot avoid making such decisions, we can learn how to make them in ways that can minimize the stress.

Major decisions in life sometimes can be clear-cut and easy to make. When I was offered my first "real" job as a psychologist, I was thrilled. I jumped at the offer, which represented both an increased income as well as a greater level of professional responsibility. I had prepared for such an opportunity for years. When it finally arrived, I had no second thoughts, just pure excitement. But, not all major decisions are nearly this easy or clear-cut.

Real-life issues are often complex. They can involve situations in which we have important values and priorities on opposing sides of a decision equation, situations where we are not certain of what we will care most about in the long run. Our internal psychology has a way of letting us know when we are in such situations. During such times, we tend to ruminate, worry, procrastinate, and change our minds (perhaps several times). These processes are indications of dissonance, a psychological process that results from being forced to make a choice between two or more alternatives, where the choice is not clear-cut, and where the choice may result in some degree of psychological, physical, or financial distress.

Dissonance is not limited to unpleasant circumstances, such as considering whether or not to realize a loss on an investment or trying to decide whether to end a personal relationship. It can result even from very positive situations.

Suppose that you have been considering a job change, and have sent out a few resumes. Then, suppose that a few weeks later, two companies make very similar offers that are substantially superior to your present situation. You are delighted and excited, of course. But, when you have to choose between the two offers, you may well experience psychological exhaustion as you fitfully consider the two appealing, but perhaps nearly equivalent, alternatives.

Invaluable guide for action

The experience of dissonance, the tension, worry, rumination, and confusion that are characteristic of a difficult choice situation, is an adaptive process. Just as physical distress can be an invaluable guide for health-supportive action (such as when the pain from a broken ankle signals us not to walk on it), so, too, can psychological distress. The dissonance experience is a special kind of psychological pain. It might be described as "integrity pain," because it specifically signals to us when we have closely equivalent values on the various sides of a decision path. Integrity is about attempting to keep one's actions integrated with one's most important values. A dissonance experience can be a signal indicating that finding the highest integrity path is going to require careful consideration.

By stating that dissonance is an adaptive process, a potentially very useful process, I do not mean to suggest that we have to like it. The pain of a sprained ankle is very useful, but certainly not pleasant. Likewise, dissonance is useful. But, as with physical pain, it should signal us to seek appropriate methods of distress reduction. We can accomplish this by following a decision-making method, which takes into account a modern understanding of how the human mind works.

Neural circuits

Our minds are made up of many millions of neural circuits, most of which are essentially independent of one another. For example, you have circuits that monitor the temperature of your big toe. And should you stick your big toe into a Jacuzzi filled with overly-hot water, those circuits will activate evasive, pain-avoidance behavior (you will jerk your toe out of the water). You have neural circuits that are noting things like the scent of nearby flowers, the angle of the sun in the sky, and how long it has been since you have last eaten. All of these circuits are evaluating different pieces of information, all of which may be important; and they essentially are doing this independently of one another.

Consider what happens when you are trying to make a tough decision. As you imagine the impact of making various potential decisions, numerous independent neural circuits start firing. You then try to "read" the feelings associated with these imaginings ("Should I step into this hot Jacuzzi?"), in order to get a sense of your long-term best interests. This use of fantasy (our imaginations), in order to get a sense of how we might feel, given the likely consequences of alternative courses of action, is a powerful, and perhaps uniquely human, capability. Very often, these fantasies are all that we need to help us decide, with confidence, which path to take.

Sometimes, however, using imagination is not enough. Even after much rumination and imagination, we sometimes cannot decide with confidence and inner peace. We still have dissonance, with all of its unpleasant characteristics of genuine confusion and psychological distress.

Decision-making strategy

In order for you to make good decisions when you experience dissonance, it can pay to utilize a sound decision-making strategy. The general strategy that I use in my practice to help clients with critical decisions is a marriage of both general modern psychology theory and specific personal decision-making research.
Three basic principles

This strategy utilizes three basic principles: (1) Make the least risky moves first; (2) Use experiments whenever possible; and (3) When all else fails, go with your "gut."

1. Make the least risky moves first. Suppose that Mary is very unhappy in her current job, and wants very much to quit. She dislikes her boss, and believes that she is being exploited. She hates to get up in the morning, and dreads facing another day at the office. She ruminates continually about winning the lottery, quitting immediately, and never working another day in her life.

Mary heard a television self-help guru explain that in order to get anywhere in life, you sometimes have to "go for it," "take risks," and "not give in to your fears." She is starting to consider quitting her job, and then looking for her "dream." She feels great anxiety when she thinks about quitting. But, this is balanced by moments of euphoria that sometimes come from imagining being free of this particular workplace. She is experiencing dissonance, and is under great psychological tension.

By using the first principle, Make the least risky moves first, Mary should not make quitting her job her first move. There is no need to quit her current job before finding out what the realities are for her in the marketplace. It may be that currently she is overpaid, not underpaid. After getting feedback like that from other potential employers, she may not feel so exploited after all! This data alone may shift how she feels, and make her current job situation quite tolerable. Hopefully, however, Mary will discover that she can improve her situation. By shopping the market, while continuing in her present job, she will eliminate the need to make any major decision until the evidence favoring a decision becomes more clear-cut!

Sometimes, however, you cannot get the crucial information you need without actually making changes; and, thus, making one or more significant decisions. In such cases, you should attempt to utilize the second principle for making major decisions: Use experiments whenever possible.

2. Use experiments whenever possible. One reason we experience dissonance is that we often don't have enough information to predict our future satisfaction of a choice with confidence. Whether we are trying to choose between two cars, two job offers, or two prom dates, dissonance can result when we are uncertain of how much we will like a given choice, relative to possible alternatives. Sometimes we have to make a difficult choice. But, we often can reduce the tension around a big decision by making smaller, temporary decisions, in order to gain additional information.

For example, suppose that a successful couple who love sailing have decided that they are "tired of the rat race," and want to move to the Caribbean to semi-retire. They plan to operate a small business, taking tourists out on their boat for snorkeling and diving. They envision a relaxed, low-cost, low-stress lifestyle, one that in fantasy seems infinitely preferable to their current way of living. They plan to quit their jobs and make the bold move. However, in the process of making plans, they experience considerable dissonance.

While their imaginations may be indicating a need for a serious life re-evaluation, the couple might benefit from running a time-limited experiment. Instead of making a full decision, one that might burn bridges and unnecessarily eliminate alternatives, they might decide to experiment with their "grand plan." Perhaps they could take a leave of absence from their current employment, and offer to work for a company doing their "dream" work, at a low fee. In doing so, they might be able to conduct a relatively inexpensive experiment, lasting a few weeks or months, which could help clarify what would bring them the most happiness.

Using experiments is a way to learn more about the realities of your alternatives, including your own true valuations. An experiment is a way to discover these facts while attempting to limit risks. In this way, the use of experiments is really just a variation on the first basic principle: make the least risky moves first.

If small experiments are not enough to help you to clarify your feelings, you may need to use increasingly risky experiments. A couple contemplating marriage, for example, may discover that one or both persons are experiencing considerable dissonance. A series of experiments: couples' counseling, a short "break" in the dating relationship, or perhaps a decision to date others for a while, may be necessary to help clarify each person's alternatives. While such experiments are potentially "risky," they also may be useful in helping to clarify the most important values in a given decision situation.

3. When all else fails, go with your "gut." Suppose you have studied a difficult situation, used (and overused) your imagination to help guide you, consulted knowledgeable people, and made all the lower-risk moves you can think of, yet your feelings are still not clear. You still aren't sure which house to buy, which job to take, or whether to marry. At that point, the best advice is probably to distract yourself for a period of time, relax and rest, and then make a "gut" decision.

This homespun-sounding advice actually has been well documented in the psychological laboratory of Professor Timothy Wilson, of the University of Virginia. For more than 20 years, Dr. Wilson has conducted research on choices and choice-satisfaction, with a particular emphasis on what strategy is used to make choices. Dr. Wilson has been able to show that, in general, people who go with their "gut" reactions wind up more satisfied with their choices than those who attempt to carefully analyze their reasons.

The reason why "gut" reactions so often work best is not clear. But, it may be because they are responses to a more complete set of all of the relevant neural circuits in a decision, compared with a more analytical approach. Exhaustive analysis may inadvertently lead us to focus on just a few considerations, and to cause us to lose "touch" with other overall relevant values.

An inescapable part of life

Making major decisions is an inescapable part of the process of living. Dissonance, the psychological pain that accompanies many of these decisions, is a natural and useful signal that the decision in question involves a difficult and complex assessment of the involved values. This need not overwhelm us, nor cause us to be fundamentally tentative in our decision-making. And, like ankle pain that recedes when the healing has been mostly accomplished, dissonance tends to recede once we have truly decided on a course of action.

In my work as a psychologist, I often am called upon to assist clients in making critical decisions. This "critical decision counseling" often is very short-term. Generally, one to three sessions or phone consultations are enough to map out an effective decision-making strategy.

Like most psychologists, I generally try to avoid giving decision advice. But, I have no such hesitance about helping clients to formulate a decision-making strategy in an effort to help them get to a psychological place where their decisions become much less difficult to make. I have found the three principles outlined above to be very helpful in this process.