Will We Ever Like the Lesser of Two Evils?
How do we make decisions when we think none of the choices are good?
In a Fast Company story, Art Markman says when we think we are presented with the lesser of two evils, our decision processes are subtly changed. He cites research suggesting that when we are dissatisfied with all available options, we tend to look for reasons to reject one choice rather than select one. When we are in rejection mindset, we focus on the most negative information about our options, and fixate on the one we identify as the least potentially awful. By contrast, he says, when we’re in a selection mindset, we focus on the most positive information available, and search for the choice with the greatest possible benefits.
“How we feel about our choices alters what we think it is we are choosing—in our minds anyway, it changes their very substance,” Markman writes. He also suggests the decision mind set will influence our satisfaction with the decision once it’s made. If people chose on the basis of negative criteria, their feelings afterwards will be based on whether they look back on the drawbacks of the choice they made and feel bad, or on the drawbacks of the choice they rejected and feel relieved.
Another Fast Company story by Heidi Grant Halvorson talks about what makes us like our decisions. She cites research by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, that shows once we make a final choice that would be hard to reverse, what he calls the psychological immune system kicks in. Once we've committed to the choice, we tend to stop thinking about alternatives and we like to think we were right. Gilbert’s studies suggest we are less satisfied with our choices if we keep our options open and make choices that we think we can reverse.
Researchers have studied how framing influences decision making. In a classic study, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman explored how different framing affected participants' responses to a choice in a hypothetical life and death situation. Participants were asked to choose between two differently presented but identical treatments for 600 people afflicted by a deadly disease. One treatment was predicted to result in 400 deaths, and the other was predicted to save 200 lives. The treatment framed as savings 200 lives was chosen by 72% of participants, but the choice dropped to 22% of participants when it was negatively framed as causing 400 deaths.
In an article on rational choice and framing of decisions, Tversky and Kahneman described another study in which participant were asked to choose between two hypothetical treatments for lung cancer. The preference for one treatment rose from 18% when it was framed in terms of survival to 44 % when it was presented as avoiding death. And when the risk of immediate death was presented as dropping from 10% to zero the advantage of that treatment was perceived as greater than when it was presented as increasing survival from 90% to 100%.
Markman’s Fast Company story discusses the decision processes of voters choosing between two major party presidential candidates they don’t like. However, the impact of rejection or selection mindset and the influence of framing are applicable to nearly every decision in life, work and community. Don’t get careless just because you don’t perceive a wonderful gleaming option.
Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman writing in the Harvard Business Review, report on their analysis of extensive feedback data from more than 50,000 business leaders on decisions they made that others had considered good and bad. Using statistical analysis, they identified nine of the most common paths to poor decisions. The most significant they wrote, is laziness: “This showed up as a failure to check facts, to take the initiative, to confirm assumptions, or to gather additional input,” they wrote. “Basically, such people were perceived to be sloppy in their work and unwilling to put themselves out. They relied on past experience and expected results simply to be an extrapolation of the past.”