Difficult decisions

Half shaved man

Yes...no...maybe...I don't know...can you repeat the question...

In last week’s post I talked about the decision-making profile developed by Itamar Gati. Along with some other researchers, Gati has also explored the various factors that lead to decision-making difficulties. As with the profile, this list of difficulties can provide a useful checklist for exploring decision making with clients.

They break their list of difficulties down into problems that occur before the decision-making process starts which lead to a lack of readiness and problems that occur during the process.

Before the process

  • Lack of motivation — a reluctance to engage with this particular decision, perhaps because it is not perceived as important or not the right time
  • General indecisiveness — perhaps stemming from a need for approval, a desire to avoid commitment or a fear of making mistakes
  • Dysfunctional myths — belief in a perfect career option, belief that this is a once-and-for-all choice
  • Ignorance of the decision making process — not knowing what factors to consider or how to analyse information

During the process

Lack of information

  • Lack of information about self — abilities, personality and preferences, now and in the future
  • Lack of information about options — ignorance of the range of alternatives and lack of necessary details about options
  • Lack of research knowledge — not knowing how to find out more about oneself or one’s options

Inconsistent information

  • Unreliable information — misapprehensions and misinformation about oneself and one’s options
  • Internal conflicts — unwillingness to compromise, genuine lack of preference, particular reservations, dissatisfaction with viable options, unsatisfied requirements, unattainable options, etc.
  • External conflicts — disagreement with influential other people about options or preferences

I have some reservations about the grouping of factors (in particular, I feel that too many separate things have been crammed together under the ‘internal conflicts’ heading). I’m also concerned about some things that seem to be missing. For example, where is ‘lack of decision making self-efficacy’? Perhaps lack of belief in one’s ability to make good decisions based on bad experiences in the past comes under General Indecisiveness.

However, even with these reservations, it does seem like a useful reminder of the many things that could de-rail a decision process.

  • Do you think that there is anything else missing from this list?
  • What do you think are the most common problems?
  • What is the most common reason for your difficulties with decision making?

Further reading

Gati, I., Krausz, M. & Osipow, S. (1996). A taxonomy of difficulties in career decision making. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 43(4), 510-526. DOI: 10.1037/0022-0167.43.4.510

Related post: In the right zone

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  1. #1 by todd I. Stark on 14 September 2010 - 15:54

    It depends on how you model the decision process. Thinking of decision making as a specific kind of problem solving, in the way I tend to think of decision making, there are roughly 3 failure modes:

    1. Expertise. Inadequate or inappropriate domain-specific expertise for the situation once it is presented, in order to best frame the problem from its starting point or determine the appropriate expertise needed. This is best dealt with by having the skills and knowledge to navigate the relevant expertise domains, a result of generallizing navigational skills from experience solving problem in diverse domains.

    2. Complexity. Excessive complexity of the situation or problem statement so that all the factors can’t be considered at once in relation to each other. This is best dealt with by finding better explanations for the situation so that it can be modelled in a simpler way or by using techniques for decomposing the problem, or finding people who can successfully handle extreme complexity and have the relevant expertise.

    3. Bias. The better people are at handling complexity and the more expert they are, the better they are at explaining away their own biases and errors. This means that bias becomes an increasing problem even as you begin to address the other failure modes. The way to deal with this failure mode is for decision makers to learn how to navigate their own thinking processes such that they can ferret out their own missteps and biases using various techniques. The “creativity” and “thinking tools” approaches often have effective ways of starting to do this by forcing people to consider the same factors in a different light.

    It might be useful to plug cognitive biases, heuristics, social psychological quirks like cognitive dissonance, and so on, into these failure modes in order to come up with a fairly good list of ways in which decision making can go wrong.

    Obviously there are simpler models of decision making failure, depending on what you’re trying to do. A model always leaves something out, this approach seems relatively comprehensive.

    kind regards,


  2. #2 by Dan on 15 September 2010 - 02:37

    I’d say too many of these categories are set up as lack of ____, that can be cured by “education.” In the modern era, decision making is more often hampered by too much information, irrelevant information, misleading or wrong information. In many cases, there are external agents “selling” either a particular decision or in some cases the continued lack of a decision.

    • #3 by todd I. Stark on 16 September 2010 - 16:07


      “Education” is like “culture” it means everything and therefore nothing.

      I’d say that you are perfectly right that we swim in a sea of information, and massive amounts of it is irrelevant or wrong for what we need at a given moment. I would argue from that, however, that the only reasonable solution is to learn to navigate it better. Reducing available information hardly seems a less problematic approach. Organizing it better makes sense, but that brings us right back to the same issue, the content providers have to be better at navigating information in general it so they can provide better organized or at least less biased views of the information.

      I’d say it does come down to “education,” but of particular kinds. Education for navigating information and thinking processes in particular.

      • #4 by David Winter on 17 September 2010 - 07:05

        Interesting discussion.

        This is precisely why I linked to the post on Zones.

        People often assume that what they lack is information or knowledge. That is rarely the main issue.

        More often, they don’t know how to get the knowledge or how to categorise it or evaluate it (Process Zone).

        In some cases, this may be because they don’t know how to interpret the information or link it to themselves and their goals. They may even lack clearly defined criteria for evaluating what is significant to them (Meaning Zone).

        In some cases, it is because they lack confidence in their ability to handle information or they have a distorted view of themselves which means they filter information inappropriately.

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