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How to Make Decisions

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 45 - October 1999

One of the most difficult things for many people to do is decision making.

I decided to choose this topic today because… well, I was having trouble deciding what to write about! But we all face this problem now and then, so maybe it's a good idea for all of us to explore various ways of tackling this human dilemma.

One classical explanation for those who have a problem making up their mind is that they strive for perfectionism. What lies behind indecision is often a strong fear of failure. Suppose I make the wrong choice? How can I live with myself? I have made so many wrong choices.

This line of thought is bound to lead to paralysing inaction. We want to be 100% sure that one path is the right one. But unfortunately, certainty is more often than not elusive in this world. (Perhaps only in Mathematics is there that high level of security.)

In Shakespeare's Hamlet we see an example of a man who cannot decide which path to take. The orthodox Freudian interpretation of his dilemma is that his Oedipal strivings inhibit action.

Thus, psychoanalyst Ernest Jones' classic book Hamlet and Oedipus (Norton, 1949) hypothesises that the Prince of Denmark had been rendered indecisive because of his unconscious conflicts. This is, of course, the archetypal Freudian explanation, and even though many follow this line of thought, I maintain a healthy skepticism. Jones' view is reflected in the famous Laurence Olivier adaptation of Hamlet in the late 1940s – about the man who "just couldn't make up his mind". The film won several Oscar awards.

I prefer to approach this problem with a more practical orientation.

Let's skip the unconscious, abstract theorising and look at some concrete methods of more effective decision making.

One aid to reaching a place where one is comfortable to make a decision is brainstorming. This means bringing up to awareness all possible ideas around your dilemma. Don't deny discussing any illogical or foolish sidetracks. List all sides of what may be expected.

Another common way to help the process along is to collect more information – maybe put off your decision for a while until you can get more data. However, this method has a drawback – that one may never come to the point. For many people, this is an effective way of never, ever making a decision!

Some speculate that often patients who go into psycho-analysis do so precisely for this effect. The rule in traditional analysis is that the patient should not make any major life decisions while he is in therapy. Thus, everything is put off until… well, tomorrow. A rather effective means to continue the status quo. In fact, one of Freud's most famous patients did just that – he couldn't make up his mind whether or not to marry his fiancée, so he became a perennial patient. His case dragged on for many, many years and so there was never any marriage. Very convenient!

Pragmatically, it may be a good idea to focus on what are some of the blocks preventing decision making. The curse of perfectionism has already been named. This brings to mind the infamous American Civil War General McClelland, who was such a perfectionist that he never could bring his army to attack. He always waited for a more perfect situation – better terrain, more training, proper weather conditions, etc. Thus he was dismissed and remains a prime example of the overly pedantic General.

Another item to consider is that some people see conflicts as "bad", and thus cannot reach a decision because they desire to avoid all confrontation. Others are too security oriented and refuse to take risks. Many think in terms of just avoiding pain. The typical non-decision maker is the man who simply ruminates, thinks over the small details for years so that he never comes to any conclusion.

At this point, I must remind my patient readers that not choosing is also a choice. Useful to keep this in mind; many times we inadvertently make a choice by refusing to take a stand. This state of limbo is itself a choice, say the existentialists, and has consequences.

For example, a distraught woman comes to the psycho-therapist saying that her married boyfriend must make a decision. He must choose her or his wife. The psychologist asks 'How long has this been going on?' 'Seven years but he still hasn't made a choice.' She needs to be reminded that he has in fact made a choice. By not choosing one or the other, he maintains the current situation, and continues with both the wife and the other woman.

There are some specific Gestalt Therapy approaches to this problem of decision-making. An important question to ask is: what does it do for you not to choose? That is, take responsibility for choosing. For instance, by not choosing between the two women, one chooses to have them both. By not choosing to decide on a career, you choose to maintain a student life. In addition to looking at what are the results of not deciding, it is also vital to explore another question: who are you trying to please? I have some patients who were indecisive as to their studies because, in the background, a dominant father exerted pressure in one direction.

An elementary exercise in decision making is to construct a fantasy about future possibilities: how will it look one year from now if you choose alternative A; and how about alternative B? Again, which is most likely? Or, what is the worst that could happen if you choose A?

And your catastrophic expectation for B? What is the best possible outcome, in fantasy, if you choose A or B? By trying out a scenario, making a detailed "daydream", various factors may become more clear.

Fritz Perls: "When the contestants are in awareness and in contact, a man may make his own hard decisions." At this point one is no longer a patient, but an individual taking full responsibility, and not in need of further psychotherapy.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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