What Makes People Indecisive?
"Should I read this? I don’t know—can't decide."
Posted March 4, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
I invited my research colleague and friend, Dr. Reza Feyzi Behnagh, assistant professor of education at SUNY, Albany, to write this post. He and I have been collaborating on research, and I thought it was a good opportunity for me to ask him to try his hand at reaching you.
Do you ever find yourself needlessly obsessing over an important decision or avoiding making that decision altogether, by any means? You have a few (often equally attractive) options to choose from, but you obsess over only a handful, exhaustively searching for information about them, through every detail and all its minutia? Do you get easily distracted by other things and lose concentration, but ultimately end up feeling overwhelmed and avoid making that final decision?
The thought of making the final pick among the alternatives daunts us all, filling us with a multitude of “what ifs" in life. For example, “What if I moved to London instead of New York or Chicago and miss out on the cool work opportunities in NYC?”
Researchers have investigated this behavior for the past three decades and termed it indecision or decisional procrastination (see Ferrari, 2010, and Ferrari, Johnson, & McCown, 1995, for personal and professional reads, respectively). Reading this blog post, you might think that this sounds very much like procrastination. You are right, it does!
Indecision is a type of chronic procrastination, and it happens when someone has to make an important, often stressful decision, but they feel overwhelmed by the number of choices and end up searching for information and claim they never got around to making the final decision. These individuals are not lazy; they just do everything to avoid making a tough decision. An example of this situation is when one is choosing a suitable job or a mate.
Indecisiveness has been linked to neuroticism in research. Neurotic individuals tend to ponder about anything and everything that could possibly go wrong. Delaying or avoiding decision-making can be thought of as a strategy to delay or avoid the imaginary negative consequences altogether. Alas, this is only a short-term fix for the anxiety of making the decision, kicking the can down the line.
Indecision is no trivial matter, however: The impact of this type of behavior may be much greater when one is trying to make a decision about an important thing in life, like finding the right life partner, a soulmate, or “the one.” The anxiety about and fear of making the wrong decision could be crippling.
Indecisive people often go to great lengths to create a situation where they never put their decision-making abilities to test, often claiming they simply forgot (“I never got around to looking into all the choices I had”) and relying on and passing the buck to others to make that final important decision. Ultimately, when the outcome of the decision is a total failure, they have someone else to blame, not themselves, because it was not them who made the decision.
Even if it was them who made the final decision, indecisives find it easier to blame something external to themselves and out of their control for the outcome of the decision. This is a form of what researchers call self-handicapping, where the individual knowingly does something they know will sabotage the outcome, but deep down they think that they can use this as an excuse to explain the impending failure. A reason for this is to maintain one’s self-esteem by blaming other factors out of one’s control. A lot of this maladaptive behavior continues to sound like procrastination, where the ultimate purpose is to feel good now and avoid a stressful situation or decision by putting it off to another time (see Sirois & Pychyl, 2016).
Like behavioral procrastination, indecision leads to anxiety, worry, regret, shame, rumination, and ultimately negatively impacts one’s quality of life, social life, and well-being. Indecision in turn can cause procrastination, but procrastination here serves as a coping mechanism for the problem of making a difficult and important decision, and the pessimism about making a good decision that their future self will not regret. More recently, Dr. Joseph Ferrari and colleagues found that indecisiveness linked to clutter (see other Psychology Today posts) and more specifically to office clutter: People cannot decide which items to keep and which to toss, so they procrastinate in the decision to declutter.
Summary: So what? It’s out there — people are indecisive, and you can find them all over. But you are not alone, because a good 20% of the adult population is indecisive (Ferrari, 2010). We talked about what indecision is, and what it is not, plus its “causes and consequences,” and what you might do to reduce this maladaptive behavior.
Scholars showed that motivation to change should come from within, and external motivators will only be a Band-Aid and will not make a lasting change in the life of indecisive individuals. However, from all the research, we know that reducing this behavior will lead to a better quality of life and more positive feelings. We will talk about some effective data-based interventions in a future post. Live, based on science.
Ferrari, J.R. (2010). Still procrastinating? The no regrets for getting it done. John Wiley & Sons.
Ferrari, J.R., Johnson, J.L., & McCown, W.G. (1995). Procrastination and task avoidance: Theory, research, and treatment. New York: Springer Publications.
Sirois, F. M., & Pychyl, T. A. (2016). Procrastination, health, and well-being. London, UK: Academic Press.