Two poor decision-makers: a study

Part of my recent fascination with decision-making has come from becoming friends with someone who has quite exceptional problems with it. Let’s call her A. It’s clear that she suffers from various problems, but the nature of all these problems isn’t completely clear. I honestly don’t know if her inability to make decisions is related to her mental health issues or to her chronic fatigue illness or to something else entirely, but I just know it breaks my heart.

Arranging a date to meet up, even for something simple like a cup of coffee, is a huge challenge to her. We’ll get our diaries out and she will dither for perhaps twenty minutes about which date is best, making the case for different choices, choosing one, then second-guessing herself and re-making the choice. She will give valid reasons for choosing date X over date Y, then suddenly swerve back and decide date X isn’t suitable at all. If she’s reminded of her original reasons for an earlier choice – e.g. “But I thought you were getting your car MOTed on Wednesday?” – it unnerves her and she begins the whole process again.

I’ve read about very similar behaviour in an Oliver Sacks book, when he was describing a brain-damaged patient. But I’d never seen it in real life until I met this person. Incidentally, she’s highly intelligent and has held down at least one high-powered job in the past.

My instinctive tendency with social plans – because I hate making decisions too – is to say “I don’t mind” or “I’ll fit in with you” or “Pick a date”. But with my new friend, I’ve tried behaving much more decisively. I’ll say: “How’s this for a plan? Let’s meet on Tuesday at 11am, do [whatever] and then go for an early lunch at [wherever].” And I can hear the relief in her voice as she agrees to my plan. But then she’ll get in touch nearer the time and want to change the plan again. We’ve done various bits of voluntary work together and the endless changing of plans about this, the reopening of decisions, is much more draining and time-consuming than the work itself.

I’ve only ever known one other person to be so poor at committing to plans and so likely to change them at the last minute. Let’s call her B. She has a completely different personality from A. For a start, she’s probably the most selfish person I’ve ever met and she’s obsessed with control. She won’t dither, she’ll just avoid committing to any plan because she wants to keep her options open. She wants to keep power relations one-sided by getting the other person (or people) to commit. Then she can use them as her back-up while she searches for something better.

In a restaurant or a cafe she will always change tables at least once. Sometimes up to five times. She can’t stand the idea that she might not be at the best table. It’s a bit of a joke among her friends. (I could give lots of other examples of her refusal to commit, to decide, but it would make this blog post way too long.)

The two women I’ve described have wildly different personalities: one is kind, unsure of herself, eager to do right by people, concerned with fairness, tending to underestimate her own abilities but overestimate her energies. The other is selfish, manipulative, obsessed with status, obsessed with control, a liar. (She does have good qualities too, but those are her bad qualities.) The only thing they really have in common is that their inability or unwillingness to commit is demonstrably a source of unhappiness for both of them. One is unhappy because she doesn’t trust herself to make the right decision; the other is unhappy because she’s haunted by the idea that there might be a better option out there, that she might be missing out, that somebody else might be having a better time than her.

Being around really poor decision-makers is a lesson to me: avoiding decisions (or making them and then repeatedly re-making them, which is just another form of avoiding them) drains your own emotional energy. And it drains the people who are forced to do the tiresome work of waiting and nagging and rearranging as a result of your behaviour. That energy doesn’t go anywhere. Nobody benefits from it. It just drains away. Making decisions might have a cost, but refusing to make a decision incurs costs too, with no corresponding benefit.

When you’re dealing with someone who can’t decide on a joint matter, you realise that any decision that lets you move forwards is a gift. That’s what I meant when I wrote that “no” can be a gift.

And when there’s nobody else involved? Making a decision and choosing to be happy with that decision is a gift you can give yourself.

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2 Comments on “Two poor decision-makers: a study”

  1. […] wrote last year about a friend of mine who has enormous problems with making, and sticking to, decisions. I called her A and mentioned that she has various other […]

  2. […] stated intentions can be about manipulative behaviour. The second woman I described in my study of two poor decision-makers does this. She doesn’t like friends knowing her plans and always pretends to be more spontaneous […]

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