Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Avoiding the Tough Decision: Do We Prefer Bad News?


How much do we hate making tough decisions?  A great deal!  In fact, we dislike that process so much that we might just prefer a worst case scenario.   Why?  In that situation, the decision no longer rests in our hands.  We are forced to select a course of action, rather than having to consider several options.  This preference for the worst case has been identified in new research published in the Journal of Consumer Researech.   Kate Barasz and Serena Hagerty co-authored a study titled "Hoping for the Worst: A ParadoxicalPreference for Bad News."   They report on a series of studies that they conducted. They write,

"Nine studies investigate when and why people may paradoxically prefer bad news—for example, hoping for an objectively worse injury or a higher-risk diagnosis over explicitly better alternatives. Using a combination of field surveys and randomized experiments, the research demonstrates that people may hope for relatively worse (vs. better) news in an effort to preemptively avoid subjectively difficult decisions (studies 1 and 2). This is because when worse news avoids a choice (study 3A)—for example, by “forcing one’s hand” or creating one dominant option that circumvents a fraught decision (study 3B)—it can relieve the decision-maker’s experience of personal responsibility (study 3C)."

I find this article fascinating.   I think decision avoidance represents a major issue for managers in many instances.   Tackling a difficult and contentious issue worries them for many reasons.  In numerous instances, we find managers engaging in conflict avoidance.  They don't want their team members battling with one another.   Moreover, they seek to avoid the stress associated with a challenging decision.  In other situations, managers exhibit risk aversion.   Making a tough decisions means accountability and potential career consequences if they select the wrong course of action.  They prefer to have the decision out of their hands for fear of damaging their opportunities for advancement, rather than seeing the situation as opportunity to shine in a tough spot.  

This research also relates to the work that Amy Edmondson, Richard Bohmer, and I conducted with regard to downplaying ambiguous threats or risks.  In a study of the Columbia space shuttle accident, we argued that teams and organizations often will mobilize effectively and quickly to address a clear and present danger.  However, they will downplay and discount ambiguous threats.   We offer several explanations for this behavior.   One hypothesis, consistent with this study on bad news, suggests that people downplay ambiguous threats because they are engaging in decision avoidance.  

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