Decisions, decisions

Just because a choice is difficult, doesn’t mean it’s important. Dr Allan Gaw talks life and death and toothpaste

  • Date: 26 April 2017


EVERY day we make hundreds of decisions – many are small and apparently insignificant, some seem to have more recognisable consequences and very occasionally we find ourselves confronted by the momentous. Our ability to make all these decisions easily and fluently often means the difference between a stressful, unfulfilling day and one where we can go home with our to-do list ticked off.

But how do we make those decisions? Are you the logical kind of decision maker who carefully tallies up the pros and cons and after a little mental arithmetic computes the “best” decision? Are you the type that goes with their gut, not really knowing how the decision has been reached but feeling that this is the “right” choice? Or are you the kind of person who, before making a decision, asks questions such as: is this the way we should do things, is this what I ought to do? Rather than trying to pigeon-hole yourself into one of these categories you should realise that we are all a complex mixture of different decision-making styles. And, moreover, we tend to use different approaches for different kinds of decisions.

Some decisions benefit from the logical approach: for example, choosing a new bank account where you can readily access all the features of the different options and work out which is the best for you. But, while a pros and cons list might be good for making a financial decision, it rarely works for choosing whom to fall in love with. There our guts, or should it be our hearts, have the upper hand. The same is true of buying a new house. The average Briton takes just 21 minutes to choose a new home, while it takes us 284 minutes to decide on which new TV to buy. We use our guts to “just know” whether the house is right, while we use our heads to calculate the best television.

The reason it takes more than ten times longer to pick the TV is, however, largely due to the overload of information we have to deal with, and there is a lesson to be learned here. We tend to regard important life decisions as difficult decisions – and one important consequence of this is that we have the unfortunate habit of also inferring that difficult decisions must be important. That’s where it all goes wrong: just because a decision is difficult does not mean it’s important.

Ironically, this seems to happen when we are confronted with a decision that is unexpectedly difficult – one that we thought should have been easy. It’s almost as if we think: “Oh, I thought this was going to be simple, but it’s not, so that must mean I’ve misunderstood its importance. I’d better work at this. It needs more time, more effort.”

And if you don’t believe this happens, think back to the last time you were standing in a supermarket aisle buying toothpaste. A “simple” task but now you see there are fifty different varieties to choose from. Some have fluoride, some don’t; some whiten your teeth, some don’t; some are for sensitive teeth, others aren’t. Suddenly, what should have potentially been a trivial decision is elevated by its apparent complexity into a difficult and therefore an important one, worthy of time and attention. But it isn’t. They’re all toothpastes after all; they all clean your teeth and in the big picture of your life it really doesn’t matter which you choose.

And in life there are many toothpaste decisions like that, where we agonise over the trivial, thinking that the very complexity of the decision means that it’s important. Once you realise that this is not the case, indeed is hardly ever the case, you can turn your attention to those decisions that do matter.

Our ability to make effective decisions is undoubtedly important. Indeed Napoleon said, “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.” But he was talking about deciding whether to invade a country and not which brand to buy in Tesco.

Beware of the trivia and beware of the procrastination that can sometimes occur as a result of our inability to decide. “In any moment of decision,” said Teddy Roosevelt, “the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

Dr Allan Gaw is a writer and educator from Glasgow


  • Roberts L. The Daily Telegraph, 2 July 2010.
  • Sela A, Berger J. Journal of Consumer Research, August 2012

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