Tell me what to do: when bad news is a big relief
Imagine you have pain in your shoulder and your doctor tells you that you have torn a tendon. If the tear is large, she says, you’ll need surgery, while, if it’s slightly smaller, surgery is optional. Which tear size do you prefer?
That’s the question Serena Hagerty, a PhD student at Harvard Business School, and Kate Barasz, associate professor at ESADE Business School in Barcelona, asked participants in a recent study. Interestingly, 20 percent of the participants wanted a bigger, more serious tear.
This is because Hagerty and Barasz also told them that if the tear was large enough – more than 3 centimeters – the need for surgery would be final, while if it was smaller they would have to decide whether to go with it. the procedure.
“What we’re really documenting here is a strong aversion to making tough decisions,” says Hagerty, “where people are willing to objectively put themselves in a worse position to absolve themselves of choice.”
“They would prefer that the decision be taken away from them.”
Rather than worry about making a difficult call, they “would just prefer to have the decision taken away from them,” Barasz says. In fact, when they gave participants the option to move a slider to show the tear size they wanted, “if the threshold [for surgery] was 3 years old, people were like, ‘I want 3.1’, ”says Barasz. “It’s not like they want their arm to drop. They just wanted a little bigger tear to make it a no-nonsense decision.
Hagerty and Barasz new paper, “Hope for the worst? A paradoxical preference for bad news ”, recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research, documents this particular preference for worst-case scenarios in a variety of medical situations, but the authors suggest that the findings apply more broadly and in a variety of settings. People are constantly faced with difficult, life-changing decisions, whether it’s moving to a new city or changing careers, for example, and the results of the study show just how successful people are. Paralyzed people can feel at a crossroads, especially at one point. it is so difficult to determine which is the right choice.
“Access to seemingly endless information online means you can find information to support the feasibility of any possible option. It can actually make decisions harder, not easier, ”says Hagerty.
According to researchers, the desire to avoid difficult decisions can also have an impact on people’s perceptions of work. For example, a candidate applying for two jobs may privately wish to be rejected by one rather than having to choose between two options, notes Barasz, a former assistant professor at HBS.
Or a business owner who has to cut costs through layoffs “might have a perverse incentive to allow underperforming employees to continue to underperform, as it makes it easier to decide who to fire,” Hagerty explains.
Let the doctor decide
The idea for the research came from Barasz’s personal experience with the need to decide whether to undergo prophylactic surgery for a genetic condition. “I was lying in the MRI thinking, ‘I hope they only find a shadow of something suspicious and bad because then the decision will not be mine,'” she said. . “Then I was like, ‘This is the craziest, stupidest emotion I’ve ever had.'”
But, of course, this is quite common. Case in point: In March 2019, medics told Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Corey Knebel that it was up to him to decide whether to end his baseball season early to have a partially torn ligament in his elbow repaired. Doctors likely would have recommended surgery for a complete tear, but the less serious injury made the procedure his choice.
“‘I hope they find only the shadow of something suspicious, because the decision will not be up to me.'”
Knebel ultimately opted for the surgery, but told a press conference that deciding what to do was excruciating. “It sucked that it was my decision. I hated it,” he said. “I really wish the doctor had just said, ‘This is what we’re doing. “”
To find out if other players would feel the same, the researchers surveyed 74 college baseball pitchers in the United States and found that about as many participants strongly preferred the full tear over the lesser injury to make the decision. with their hands. One player explained: “I chose this answer because it really happened to me. I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what and had an MRI, and, after hearing the doc say it was a complete tear, I was relieved.
Fear of regret
The researchers looked at why people felt this through another set of experiences. During a test involving surgery for appendicitis, for example, they gave people either “better news” in which they would have a choice to have surgery, or “worse news” in which the doctor strongly recommended surgery. After the hypothetical procedure was completed, they told the participants that surgery was ultimately not necessary and asked how they were feeling. Those who made the choice themselves felt more personally responsible than those who made the decision for them – a difference of 3.4 versus 4.4 on a seven-point scale.
“The irony here was that either way you didn’t need surgery,” says Barasz, “but the thing people feared the most was the regret they would feel afterward.”
“Bad news can leave people feeling like ‘they have no other choice’, which in itself can be exonerating.”
The researchers also found that the harder the decision, the more likely people were to prefer the bad news option that took away their personal choice. While previous research has shown that people dislike making tough decisions, “to our knowledge, this is the first literature to suggest that we hope for the worst before we even hear the news,” Hagerty says.
After all, bad news can save us from making a bad call. “By providing a clear path forward, bad news can make people feel like they have no other choice, which in itself can be exonerating,” the researchers write.
How to deal with difficult choices
One last experiment showed how self-destructive this thought can be. When participants were given the opportunity to undergo a procedure that could reduce a shoulder tear to the point of avoiding surgery, many preferred to skip the procedure and continue with the surgery anyway. The behavioral implications are important, the researchers say, as people sometimes may not act in their own best interests.
For those who struggle to make difficult decisions, rather than hoping for bad results, a better strategy may be to find ways to make the choice easier by gathering more information or seeking advice. “Part of it is about being aware of how opposed we are to tough decisions,” Hagerty explains, “and looking for things to make them easier, whether through more knowledge or some advices. ”
“Part of it is just being aware of the extent to which we are opposed to tough decisions.”
By reducing the difficulty of decisions, say Hagerty and Barasz, policymakers can empower themselves to make those choices themselves, rather than expecting self-defeating bad news to make the choice for them.
“Recognizing the difficulty of decisions and the perverse incentives that can come from them can help reduce this preference for the worst news,” says Barasz, “and, ideally, free people to make better choices.”
About the Author
Michael blanding is a writer based in the Boston area.
[Image: Unsplash/Javier Allegue Barros]
If you had to choose between “bad” and “ambiguous” which one would you choose? Why?
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