Therese Raphael

Decisive People Aren’t Better Decision-Makers

Some people are naturally more decisive. These charge-ahead types make choices assuredly, from the trivial to the life-changing, stick to them and don’t look back. But do they make better decisions?

It turns out that indecisive people don’t make worse decisions. In fact, the art of making good choices is as much about how we make them, and whether we actually put our decisions into action, as it is the choices themselves.

Wojciech Zajkowski, a postgraduate researcher from Cardiff University, and two coauthors came to that conclusion after studying the way people make decisions. Their peer-reviewed paper was published online earlier this month.

From an initial survey of 723 people, they formed two groups of 60 respondents based on answers to questions that measured “action control,” one of the main factors believed to determine decision-making effectiveness and execution skills.

According to this classification, “action-oriented” people — those who find it easier to initiate and follow through on decisions — more easily adjust to time pressure or stress and are more likely to follow through on their decisions. “State-oriented” people, on the other hand, find decisions more difficult, are less flexible, more likely to question the choices they’ve made and more prone to abandoning efforts later.

In case you’re wondering, only a small portion of one’s action control is accounted for by personality factors such as extroversion or openness.

The participants were put through a series of simple cognitive tasks and compared across a series of factors, such as how quickly they could acquire new information, how much information they needed to commit to a choice and how confident they were about their decision.

To Zajkowski’s surprise, there was no material difference when it came to the quality or accuracy of the decisions they produced. State-oriented people proved as able to respond quickly and accurately to changing tasks and to incorporate additional information.

However, there was an important difference between the groups: State-oriented people lacked the same confidence in their decisions. A second experiment, adding subjective tasks, confirmed the initial finding.

The problem for the more deliberative, state-oriented among us is that low decision-confidence can easily translate into discouragement, despair, or simply low levels of commitment to one’s choices. And for those pursuing long courses of study toward a career path, writing books, building businesses or repairing relationships, that steady dedication can be the key determining factor of success.

Conventional thinking sees poor action control (or excessive state orientation) as a failure of executive skills and controls. Indeed, there is a growing focus on helping young people acquire better functions such as task initiation and planning, which are crucial in life. But, interestingly, Zajkowski says his research shows it’s not the cognitive skills that matter so much as the “metacognitive” skills, which he describes as the “thinking about the thinking.”

In a Zoom call from Tokyo, where he’s doing postdoctoral research, Zajkowski says he’s state-oriented by nature — it took six years after the data was collected to publish the paper. “Being action-oriented is associated with better life outcomes, better well-being and just kind of being happier and a bit more of a successful person.” But it’s not always more beneficial to be an action-oriented person, he adds.

The obvious example is those who commit to a bad decision but do little to interrogate or reflect on their choices and the consequences. Action-oriented people may also be more prone to confirmation bias, so more easily manipulated or perhaps taken in by charismatic figures.

“A kind of obvious lesson from this is that being at either extreme is generally bad. There are many instances where deliberation is very helpful. The problem becomes when it’s excessive and then it becomes problematic to complete commitments,” he says.

Another lesson is that most people will thrive in an environment that plays to their strengths and helps compensate some for their bias, especially those who skew toward one end of the action-state spectrum. A state-oriented person may do better in an environment that imposes a bit more structure and time pressure (she writes nervously, 30 minutes before deadline time).

One question I don’t have an answer to is how well we can really extrapolate from such experiments. Zajkowski is up front about the limitations of such experiments. The field known as “judgment and decision making” is rich and includes, of course, the ground-breaking research that led to Nobel Prizes for Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler and the hugely influential work in behavioral science such as Katy Milkman’s 2021 “How to Change” or Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s iconic 2009 book “Nudge.”

And yet most decision-making research — ending in if-then reports about how people who adopt a particular strategy make better or worse decisions than those who adopt an alternative approach — has not yielded such fruits. In a searingly frank article last year in Science Direct, two prominent researchers, David Weiss and James Shanteau, argued that most of what’s been done in the field over the past half-century has been of little use.

The problem, they suggested, is an over-reliance on rigid models that aren’t replicated in the real world. “The easiest path to grasp this unfortunate reality is to consider how a JDM [judgment and decision-making] researcher would respond to a friend’s request for help in making a difficult life decision. The advice is unlikely to be influenced by any of the work of the last 50 years,” they wrote.

Their advice to younger researchers wasn’t to give up but to “study real decisions.” One of the easiest decisions to make in the field of psychology seems to be to study how we choose. For those of us looking for pointers, Zajkowski’s work seems to suggest we should worry less about the quality of our choices and focus more on confidence and commitment.