The Downside of Keeping Your Options Open

When given an option between a reversible decision and an irreversible decision, we tend to prefer the former. We like money back guarantees. We like no strings return policies. There is something comforting about knowing that we can change our minds in the future.

There is less pressure on us to make the perfect choice. We are not stuck if we make a bad decision.

We’re also inadvertently undermining our own happiness.

The Studies

Dan Gilbert (whose book Stumbling on Happiness I have recommended) teamed up with Jane Ebert of MIT to run studies on the happiness impacts of reversible and irreversible decisions.

In the first study, students were taught to take and develop black and white photographs. They developed and printed two “personally meaningful” photos. After this, the researchers asked them to pick one to take home with them and one to leave with the teacher. Half of the students were told that they could come back and swap within the next four days, while the other half were told that their choice would be final and irreversible.

The people who were not allowed to swap their photo actually grew to like their photograph more as time passed. They became more confident that they had made the right decision. People who were given the opportunity to change their minds remained uncertain and less happy, even after the deadline to swap had passed.

In the second study students ranked nine posters of paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, and El Greco. They were told that that there were extra copies of two of these posters and they were allowed to take one home with them. The two just happened always to be the two that the student had ranked third and fourth. Again, half were told that they could swap posters (this time within the next month) and the other half were told that they could not.

And again the people that could not change their mind were happier with the choice that they made.

Why Does This Happen?

Gilbert and Ebert discuss what they call the “psychological immune system.” This system kicks into high gear to mentally defend the position in which you find yourself.

“Human beings are famous for seeking, attending to, interpreting, and remembering information in ways that allow them to feel satisfied with themselves and their lots.” Basically, our minds start twisting our situation into the best light to make us feel better about our lives. And if you don’t believe this, Gilbert and Ebert cite twenty different studies that you can check out if you’re interested.

The problem appears to be that when you keep your options open, your psychological immune system doesn’t have a chance to kick in. Instead of subconsciously defending the decision that you made, you are constantly trying to figure out whether your decision was right or whether you should change it.

On top of that, you will continue to hone in on all of the negatives of the option that you chose while debating whether to switch. Even if you ultimately stick with your original decision, your enjoyment will be diminished because of all of the extra time you spent highlighting the negatives in your mind.

This may ultimately make you more likely to make the best objective choice, but what benefit is that to you if you made the “right” choice but are less happy as a result?

So if you are trying to maximize your happiness, you need to make the best decision that you can at the appropriate time and then move on and stop thinking about the other options.

In addition to the happiness implications, there is at least one study that has found that reversible decisions have a negative impact on your memory. The study found that in addition to having higher instances of regret and unhappiness in your decision, having the option to change your mind also results in “decreased working memory capacity.”

Essentially, because a part of your brain is still weighing the options, you have less ability to focus on the next task at hand. Again, it is best to make the best decision that you can at the time and then move on.

In Closing

This is not to say that you should always make your decisions irreversible. If you find yourself fainting at the sight of blood, it might make sense to switch from your pre-med major. If you hate your new boss, go ahead and look for a different job.

Especially in lower-stakes decisions, though, it is important to know that there are major hidden costs to keeping your options open.

12 thoughts on “The Downside of Keeping Your Options Open”

  1. There has been a lot of research done in the area of decision fatigue as well. You start each day with a certain number of decisions that you can make well and as the day wears on, your decision stamina wears out. The more inconsequential decisions you can eliminate, the better off you will be when you need to make the decisions that matter. That’s why many presidents have a “look” that they use every day. It eliminates a trivial decision and it’s one less thing to worry about, e.g. Steve Jobs.

    By not leaving your options open, you effectively eliminate a future decision and free up that mental capacity for something else.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Good call! I had considered including decision fatigue in this post but decided it deserved its own post at some point in the future. Thanks!

  2. Wow, interesting study, Matt. I’ve always been a fan of optionality and keeping my option open to either double down on a decision or reverse course, however this study gives me something more to consider now. Like you said, it may make more sense to maintain optionality for some decisions over others so it’ll need to be a case-by-case decision, but it does add another wrinkle to consider for big decisions. Thanks for the post!

    1. It is always tricky when the common sense and economics approach points one way and the happiness research points another. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Interesting study, thanks for the book recommendation as well

    Definitely see the applications to small repetitive decisions that you make on a daily/weekly or monthly basis like Jon mentioned below. The part that intrigues me is how we slowly twist the information into thinking we made the right choice. Almost like we are succeptable to “group think” in our own minds.

    1. Indeed. It sounds like a harmful effect – sort of a self-delusion mechanism, but it turns out to be beneficial to our happiness. Thanks for reading!

  4. Thank you for sharing this study. I am a huge fan of Dan Gilbert. It’s it amazing in a world full of so many choices that the less choices that we have the better off we are.

    This may be really far fetched but I wonder if people today are less happy with their spouse or their potential spouse since divorce is so prevalent in our society. I wonder back when my grandparents were married and divorce was frowned upon if it forced them to defend their decision and truly stay married?

    Needless to say, brilliant post

    1. Thank you very much for the kind words.

      Believe it or not, there is actually a good deal of research on people’s happiness with their significant other and how it has changed over time. The best collection that I’ve seen of this information is actually in a book written by a comedian. Aziz Ansari wrote Modern Romance: An Investigation with a sociologist and mixes in some personal anecdotes and a significant amount of research from various fields. One issue that he looks at is why our grandparents were less likely to get divorced, despite having a much smaller pool of potential spouses to pick from. It’s definitely worth a read if that is a subject you are interested in.

  5. This is very interesting and great timing also! I had a post in the works (not sure when I’ll publish) that details how optionality is the most important commodity you can have and it’s good to see the other perspective on it. I thought that options would have limited downsides but not being happy with a decision is a huge downside. Great perspective!

    1. Nice! I am looking forward to reading that. I didn’t touch on any of the benefits that come with optionality in this post, so it will be interesting to compare the benefits of options with the detriments.

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