At any given moment, we’re likely making a multitude of decisions. With agency, however, also comes the ever-looming presence of doubt. But what exactly is it that tells us we've made the 'right' decision? And why do we fret just as much over our outfit choices and appetiser options, as we do with respectively larger life-altering decisions like partners and living arrangements? Well, science may just have the answer — and it's a lot simpler than you'd think.
As covered in Science Daily, a team of researchers at ETH Zürich and the University of Zürich has embarked on a mission to answer these questions. Harnessing experimental data, the authors conceived a computer model that can essentially predict how an individual might choose between various options, and why they might subsequently feel assured or regretful about their final decision.
Of course, decisions, and our feelings about them, are subjective, so how do we examine them? The team studied how test subjects evaluate and select everyday food options.
Firstly, participants were asked to evaluate 64 products from two supermarkets and presented with a picture of each product on screen. They were then asked how much they would like to eat each item at the end of the experiment. In the second part of the experiment, test subjects were shown a series of pictures that showed two of the products at once and asked to choose from the two options. The subjects then had to actually eat the products, rating how much confidence they had in their decision. afterwards. Researchers used eye scanners to monitor decision-making speeds.
"Using our model, we've successfully shown that decisions are most likely to feel right if we have invested significant attentional effort in weighing up the different options and, what's more, are conscious of having done so," says Polanía, who heads up the Decision Neuroscience Lab at ETH Zürich. The higher the attentional effort paid to the options, the greater the confidence in the final decision.
Consequently, the researchers concluded that the proclivity to question and revise 'poor' decisions relies on our own judgement of whether we weighed up the options appropriately, or allowed ourselves to be distracted or blasé during the decision-making process. "We discovered that people are particularly likely to have a bad feeling about a decision if they introspect that they didn't pay enough attention to comparing the different options," Polanía wrote. Self-awareness and the capacity for reflection are essential prerequisites for self-assurance. Meaning that we may be able to avoid spiralling into undue doubt if we've properly thought things through.
The main takeaway from the findings is that we can sit comfortably with a decision if we feel we have adequately weighed up the options available. Of course, this is pretty subjective in itself, but if we feel we’ve lent an appropriate amount of introspection and the brain has ways of convincing us of things that may not be true, but the science behind our 'gut instinct' tends to suggest that it's always worth mulling things over a bit.
And besides, doubt is a natural, mostly unavoidable part of life, and the freedom to make decisions — and mistakes, for that matter — is never something to take lightly. We're wired to dwell on our bad decisions, even regretful choices from years ago, but it's important to encourage yourself to reflect on all those good decisions you've made, too, even if it is just the right appetiser.