Indecision — Does It Get Worse As We Age?

Jan 4, 2023

We’ve all heard of analysis paralysis – the idea that too many choices lead to total inertia. Indecisiveness is a trait common to many of us, whatever our age. While some people come to very quick judgements, others struggle to weigh up the options – and may even try to avoid making a choice at all.

Indecision is widely regarded as a characteristic of the older generation. While there is some truth to this idea, there’s plenty of evidence that suggests its opposite. Older adults may not have to think too hard if they’ve made a similar decision before. This is because they’ll already know what to do, based on their previous experience.

Regulating Our Emotions Comes With Age

Another factor involved in making good decisions is the ability to regulate our emotions.  Decision-makers who can avoid dwelling on things that have gone wrong in the past will make better decisions about when to walk away from a loss or other kind of misdirection.

They’ll cancel plans that no longer seem appealing, or projects that are no longer profitable, or options that – on mature consideration – make insufficient sense.

Indecisiveness can be linked to problems like anxiety, yet recent research suggests that it can also have an upside.

It protects us from common cognitive errors like confirmation bias – the tendency to believe information that supports an existing belief – so that when the person does finally come to a judgement, it is generally wiser than those who jumped to a conclusion too quickly.

The trick is to learn when to wait, and when to break through the inertia while it’s holding you back. Maturity – emotional and intellectual – is crucial. It pays off.

Frost Indecisiveness Scale

Psychologists have various tools to measure indecisiveness. One of the most common questionnaires, the Frost Indecisiveness Scale, asks participants to rate a series of statements on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). They include:

  • I try to put off making decisions
  • I have a hard time planning my free time
  • I often worry about making the wrong choice
  • It seems that deciding on the most trivial thing takes me a long time

Using this scale, psychologists have shown that indecisiveness is often a product of perfectionism. Perfectionists fear the shame or regret that may come with making the wrong choice, so they put off making decisions until they feel certain they are doing the right thing.

So, Is Indecision Undesirable?

Despite what many of us think, indecision is not necessarily a bad thing. Hesitancy might not necessarily make us happier. But breaking through the hesitancy barrier likely will.

Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago who co-authored the book Freakonomics, set up a website where people described various dilemmas they were facing in their lives – from getting a tattoo to moving house, returning to education or quitting their jobs. Concluded Levitt: “A good rule of thumb in decision making is, whenever you cannot decide what you should do, choose the action that represents a change, rather than continuing the status quo.”

There’s a lesson here for all of us, whatever our age. And should someone tell you that indecision is a characteristic of the elderly? That’s not always so, you can explain!



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