Decision breakers

16 September 2017

9:00 AM

16 September 2017

9:00 AM

‘The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision,’ said Maimonides. How right he was. Today, we are racked with choice, and decision-making has never been more fraught. It’s hell.

Look at restaurant menus. Anything longer than a page is alarming. So much margin for error. ‘Hold on a minute, I just need another look.’ ‘What’s the special, again?’ Glance at a neighbouring table. ‘That looks nice, is it the lamb?’ Turn to your partner. ‘What are you having?’

At least you’ve settled on a restaurant. Organising a dinner out generates endless back and forth between companions, jostling politely for position, lobbying for a venue in a more convenient postcode, suggesting somewhere a little less expensive or a touch more on trend: ‘I’ve heard this place is good’, ‘That’s quite far…’ ‘OK. What about x or y?’ ‘Maybe z?’

Part of the problem is technology. We’re in touch with everyone all the time via our phones and all looped into the decision-making process, whether on email, text message or WhatsApp. As a result, decisions can be delayed until the day (‘See how we feel’), the hour before (‘What about this?’) and even en route (‘Change of plan!’).

I met two friends in an empty restaurant the other day. They had drinks in front of them but the chooser of the restaurant was nervously shifting in her seat. ‘Should we go somewhere else? There’s another place I read about up the road?’ We hadn’t even opened the menu. My friend clearly felt the burden of having made the call. She didn’t want to get it wrong — when the right thing could have been just around the corner.

We’re constantly striving for perfection and it’s driving us to distraction. Holidays present all sorts of headaches before you’ve even got to the airport. Budget withstanding, the possibilities are endless. And we understandably place so much importance on our time away that the idea we might get it wrong fills us with dread. If it’s a special holiday, a honeymoon say, where do you begin? One friend changed her honeymoon arrangements on the strength of negative online reviews. Another booked and cancelled a sunshine getaway within the space of 24 hours. He lost faith in his choice.

There are so many options at our fingertips. Endless people telling us what they thought of this or that on sites such as Trip-Advisor — guaranteed to hinder not help, with its wildly ranging views on the same place. ‘Don’t bother’, ‘We loved it’.

I tormented myself on a recent holiday in Lisbon by looking at Instagram and all the tasty images of food from local restaurants in which I wasn’t eating. There was always somewhere better gleaming tantalisingly on the horizon. We trawled the streets, pondering one place over another, popping back to one, having a quick drink somewhere else before deciding to go with this — or that.

We can buy things, return them for a full refund and not worry about losing a few pounds on the postage. We’ve even coined a term for it, shopping bulimia, where a sackful of purchases are made and swiftly returned. Two hits of dopamine, once for the splurge and once for the refund, phew.

Deciding on a single career path or climbing the ranks in one company is now regarded as positively old-fashioned. These days you are expected to diversify. Try something else. Perhaps have multiple jobs — just look at George Osborne. But is such flexibility making us any happier? I’m not sure. I wonder if instead we are permanently dissatisfied, always seeking the next thing. Constantly trying on slightly ill-fitting shoes.

That seems to be the case with dating. There are so many services, sites and apps that you can go on endlessly giving people a go. Anna Heaton, an attractive 29-year-old, has been in the news recently for having had 77 dates in two years. No one has yet measured up. Some might say she’s picky, others that she knows what she wants. Maybe she simply has a serious case of decision-fatigue?

The American psychologist and philosopher William James believed there to be ‘no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision’. He would know. This was a man who changed his studies and career path multiple times, going from science to painting to natural history, followed up by medicine, then on to philosophy via psychology and physiology.

Indecision is restless, time-consuming, tiring. It is Theresa May. She has been criticised for flip-flopping over policies and over calling the election. Lord Harris of Peckham has berated the Prime Minister for changing her mind too many times. ‘Theresa May is no Thatcher. Thatcher used to make decisions. Not everyone liked her but you knew where you stood.’ The trouble is that, increasingly, none of us know where we stand on anything.

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