Analysis Paralysis

Here’s a simple thought experiment.

Say two shiny new ice-cream parlours open in your locality. Parlour A serves about 100 different flavours, from plain Vanilla to new, exciting flavours like Strawberry Cheesecake and Coffee Banana. On the other hand, Parlour B offers only three classic flavours: Chocolate chip, Vanilla and Butterscotch.

Based on this information alone, which Parlour are you more likely to visit for the first time? Exclude all other factors — ambience, taste, service, etc. Where are you more likely to have a better time? And, more importantly, why?

Hold on to the answers. We will come back to them in a short while.

To be or not to be: What is Analysis Paralysis?

Generally, successful decision making follows a set pattern. First, one must identify the motive behind the decision. Then, consider all options available carefully weighing them against each other, and finally, pick one and execute it.

For instance: Robert wants to talk to his supervisor about a possible raise.

  • Objective: Persuade the supervisor for a raise.
  • Consideration: Robert may think of all the things he can say — his achievements at the company, his work ethic, his projects.
  • Execute: Go and talk to the supervisor.

However, for those prone to anxiety, it may not be this straightforward.

The fear of taking one wrong step and losing out on an incredible solution may stall them from arriving upon a decision indefinitely. This is known as Analysis-Paralysis.

Paralysis is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a state of powerlessness or incapacity to act. Analysis-Paralysis is a form of mental paralysis where people get so wound up micro-analysing every aspect of a decision, that executing it becomes next to impossible. Alternatively, people may spend so much time thinking that until they arrive on the decision it is too late.

In the previous example, let’s assume Robert faces great anxiety at the idea of having to talk it out with his supervisor. He is extremely doubtful of his negotiation skills. His fear of rejection may cause him to overthink all those things — every word, every sentence, every pause that Robert had decided to say. He might keep playing unfavourable scenarios in his head on a loop. This causes him to spiral further in a process that is deeply mentally exhausting.

That is what analysis paralysis does — it keeps a person stuck until they are rendered quite incapable of arriving on a plan of action or executing it.

More is Less: What Causes Analysis-Paralysis

Let’s go back to our thought experiment.

So, which Ice-cream Parlour did you select? Like the majority of the people faced with such a choice, say you choose Parlour A. You must now decide upon a flavour. You have 100 options. Roast Almond, French Vanilla, Red Velvet, Rock ‘n Roll, Oreo Creme, Mint Chocolate, Rum Raisin, Honey Walnut — the list goes on. What do you choose?

Guess what?

You should’ve taken pity on your poor brain and stuck to Parlour B with their three simple flavours.

The Jam Experiment

Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University conducted a similar experiment. Except, instead of an Ice-cream parlour, it involved a jam tasting booth. The booth was changed periodically so that people could sample either from among 24 different varieties or 6 ones.

The results were somewhat similar. 60% of shoppers sampled jam when 24 varieties were available. However, only 3% of those who sampled the large display bought one, whereas 30% of those who sampled the small display made a purchase. (Iyengar, 2000)

This is a phenomenon known as The Paradox of Choice (Schwartz, 2004).

According to Psychologist Barry Schwartz, we believe more choices lead to greater pleasure because we associate it with greater control over purchasing. But, when you must choose a single option from a multitude, the rest automatically get cancelled out. Hence, there is always this possibility of losing out on an incredible alternative for something much inferior.

Our brains are not only wired to seek pleasure but also to avoid pain. Consequently, when abundant choices pile up, our brain is trying to maximise pleasure and minimise regret at the same time. As the pressure to act builds up, our brain gets exhausted, incapacitated and incapable of making decisions.

Psychological and Occupational Factors Contributing to Analysis-Paralysis

People with neurotic personality types, who are prone to anxious thought patterns, are particularly likely to get held behind by Analysis-Paralysis.

A lot of their anxiety manifests in the form of Cognitive Distortions. These are thought patterns that cause inaccurate perception of reality (Beck, 1976). Common cognitive distortions include Catastrophising (jumping immediately to the worst possible scenario) and Black and White Thinking (assuming a situation can either be totally good or bad) (Burns, 1989).

These thought patterns, through repetitions, become habits. The result is people who believe that no matter what they do, the outcome will be unfavourable. They may even delay taking decisions because they are afraid of failure. This leaves them at an increased risk for low confidence in their decision-making capacities, leading to more reluctance in making quick decisions — the kind of vicious cycle our friend Robert is stuck in.

Along with personality, occupational factors also tend to contribute to Analysis-Paralysis. Knowledge-based creative professions that require intense research and planning before a project can be designed and/or executed are especially prone to lag in their decision making. These include software developers, writers, athletes and even marketing executives. Possible solutions range from avoiding rigid design approaches to setting deadlines for the analysis phase.

Solution-Resolution — Dealing with Analysis Paralysis

Infinite options of everything we want is available at a single click. This tends to amplify Analysis-Paralysis. Hence, it becomes all the more important to understand how to deal with it.

To avoid: Remodel your decision-making style

American psychologist Herbert Simon believes that people have two distinct styles or strategies of decision making — People are either Satisficers or Maximisers.

A Satisficer is a heuristic (rule of thumb, tried and tested methods of decision making) that prioritises “adequate solution over an optimal solution” (Simon, 1947,1956). Essentially, once their basic minimum criteria are met, Satisficers can settle upon a decision.

Maximisers, on the other hand, want the absolute best out of everything. For instance, even if they find the perfect car that meets all their requirements, they will not rest until they research all other similar options.

Maximisers tend to be Perfectionists. They tend to engage in a lot of counterfactual thinking like “What if I had looked at more cars before buying this one?” Therefore, they face more regret and less satisfaction after making a decision (Schwartz, Ward, 2002). Basically, second-guessing every move is their nature.

Our brain’s natural tendency is to avoid regret. So, maximisers often conflicted and more likely to find themselves in an Analysis-Paralysis situation.

The obvious solution to this is to gently switch to being a Satisficer.

You can also try minimising your options to the ones that matter the most to prevent Paradox of Choice.

To resolve: Nip it in the bud

For those prone to anxiety, anxious patterns of thinking come more or less automatically. So when faced with even a slight issue, they revert to these patterns making it very difficult to get back to rational thinking. Hence, the best way to break these patterns is to identify and nip anxiety right when it begins.

Identifying anxiety through emotion is easier than monitoring the thought pattern. So, if the very idea of an impending decision is distressing you, Analysis-Paralysis has most definitely set in.

Once identified, take a step back and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Why is this particular decision distressing me so much?
  2. Is my fear of failure keeping me from making a decision?
  3. Am I going to lose something incredibly important to me if I make a wrong decision?
  4. If I fail, what would stop me from coping with that failure?
  5. Rationally, how likely is the worst-case scenario?
  6. Why do I think I can’t deal with it? (Eifert, G.H. & Forsyth J.P., 2005)

This exercise aims to allow your brain some time to calm down and let the rational brain take over from the anxious one. Since your anxious patterns have become habits through constant repetition, you might have to practise this multiple times before you can successfully break them.

Breaking the Reign of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a particularly deadly form of anxiety. In trying to maximise productivity, it may end up ensuring that nothing ever gets done at all.

To break the grip of Perfectionism, it is crucial to allow yourself to make mistakes.

  • Start small. Do you have a sudden invitation to lunch? Don’t spend the whole morning mulling over it, accept it.
  • You don’t know if your email is perfectly worded? Don’t spend another hour over it; fifteen minutes is enough.

Every decision — no matter how small — taken quickly is of importance here. This is because Perfectionism erodes the distinction between decisions. So what to wear for a date becomes just as pressing as what to say to your supervisor.

The trick here is to allow yourself to trust, to become comfortable with what feels like impulsive, reckless decision making. Let mistakes happen. Don’t beat yourself up; you are allowed to forgive yourself. As your confidence in your instinct and your skills grows, you can tackle more significant decisions with ease.

It is also important to ask if the decision deserves so much attention. We have a limited amount of mental reserve. If you invest it into relatively minor decisions like what to wear for a date, it will leave you too exhausted for the crucial ones.

Along with this breaking a decision into smaller steps, talking it out with someone you trust and setting a deadline might also prove useful.

Related Terms

Buyer’s Remorse: Buyer’s Remorse is the sense of regret after having made a purchase. It is a consequence of The Paradox of Choice, where people regret the other (possibly better) alternatives that they may have missed out after making a particular choice. (Schwartz, 2004)

Opportunity Cost: When a person loses the opportunity to choose a better option for an inferior choice, the cost inferred is known as the Opportunity Cost. (Green, 1984) It is an economic concept but has psychological implications in the form of Buyer’s Remorse. The possibility of incurring an Opportunity Cost may lead to Analysis Paralysis.

Information Overload: Information Overload is the incapacity to understand or effectively take a decision on an issue because one has too much information on the same. It exhausts our Working Memory, where much of cognitive processing takes place. It leads to Analysis Paralysis. (Gross Bertram.M, 1964)

Decision Fatigue: Decision fatigue refers to the poor quality of decision arising from a long stretch of decision making. Analysis Paralysis and Decision Fatigue both lead to poor choices or no-decision. But differ in the sense that Analysis Paralysis arises from overthinking, whereas Decision Fatigue stems from mental exhaustion.

Elimination by Instinct: The opposite of Analysis Paralysis, where the person takes reckless decision without thinking it through.

For further reading —

Book: The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz

Related topics: Decision Fatigue — Paradox of Choice — Cognitive Distortion

Go to Psych-easy-pedia | Read articles on Analysis-Paralysis

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