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What Makes People Indecisive?

Should I read this, or shouldn’t I? Does This sound like you at times??

Do you ever find yourself needlessly obsessing over an important decision or avoiding making that decision altogether by any means? You have a few (often equally attractive) options, but you obsess over only a handful, exhaustively searching for information about them through every detail and all its minutia. Do you get easily distracted by other things and lose concentration but ultimately feel overwhelmed and avoid making that final decision?

The thought of making the final pick among the alternatives daunts us all, filling us with many “what ifs” in life. For example, “What if I moved to London instead of New York or Chicago and missed out on the cool work opportunities in NYC?”

Researchers have investigated this behavior for the past three decades and termed it indecision or decisional procrastination (Ferrari, 2010; Ferrari, Johnson, & McCown, 1995, for personal and professional reads, respectively). Reading this blog post, you might think this sounds like procrastination. You are right; it does!

Indecision is a type of chronic procrastination that happens when someone has to make a significant, often stressful decision. Still, they feel overwhelmed by the number of choices and end up searching for information and claim they never got around to making the final decision. These individuals are not lazy; they do everything to avoid making tough decisions. An example of this situation is choosing a suitable job or a mate.

Indecisiveness has been linked to neuroticism in research. Neurotic individuals tend to ponder anything and everything that could possibly go wrong. Delaying or avoiding decision-making can be considered a strategy to delay or avoid the imaginary negative consequences altogether. Alas, this is only a short-term fix for the anxiety of making the decision, kicking the can down the line.

Indecision is no trivial matter, however: The impact of this behavior may be much more remarkable when one is trying to decide an essential thing in life, like finding the right life partner, a soulmate, or “the one.” The anxiety about and fear of making the wrong decision could be crippling. 

Indecisive people often go to great lengths to create a situation where they never put their decision-making abilities to the test, often claiming they forgot (“I never got around to looking into all the choices I had”) and relying on and passing the buck to others to make that final important decision. Ultimately, when the outcome of the decision is a total failure, they have someone else to blame, not themselves, because it was not them who made the decision.

Even if they made the final decision, indecisive’s find it easier to blame something external to themselves and out of their control for the outcome of the decision. This is a form of what researchers call self-handicapping, where the individual knowingly does something they know will sabotage the outcome, but deep down, they think that they can use this as an excuse to explain the impending failure. A reason for this is to maintain one’s self-esteem by blaming other factors out of one’s control. Many of these maladaptive behavior continues to sound like procrastination, where the ultimate purpose is to feel good now and avoid a stressful situation or decision by putting it off to another time.

Like behavioral procrastination, indecision leads to anxiety, worry, regretshame, and rumination, ultimately negatively impacting one’s quality of life, social life, and well-being. Indecision can cause procrastination, but procrastination here serves as a coping mechanism for the problem of making a complex and important decision and the pessimism about making a good decision that their future self will not regret. More recently, my colleagues and I found that indecisiveness is linked to clutter and, more specifically, to office clutter: People cannot decide which items to keep and which to toss, so they procrastinate in decluttering.

Summary: So what? It’s out there — people are indecisive, and you can find them all over. But you are not alone because 20% of the adult population is indecisive. We talked about what indecision is and is not, plus its “causes and consequences,” and what you might do to reduce this maladaptive behavior.

I unequivocally believe that motivation to change should come from within, and external motivators will only be a Band-Aid. They will not make a lasting change in the life of indecisive individuals. However, from all the research I have done and studied, reducing this behavior will lead to a better quality of life and more positive feelings.

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Dr. Sydney Ceruto

A Pioneer in Neuroscience-Based Coaching

As the founder of MindLAB Neuroscience, Dr. Sydney Ceruto has been a leading force in integrating neuroscience into coaching and counseling for over two decades. With three master's degrees in psychology and two PhDs in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience, she is widely considered a top expert in her field.

Harnessing the power of neuroscience-based coaching, Dr. Ceruto's innovative approach focuses on neuroscience, neuroplasticity, and neural pathway rewiring to foster lasting positive change in mental health.

Dr. Ceruto holds esteemed memberships in the Forbes Executive Council, Positive Performance Alliance, Wharton Executive Education Program, the International Society of Female Professionals, and executive writing positions for Alternatives Watch, Brainz Magazine, and TED: Ideas Worth Spreading.

Dr. Ceruto's accomplishments include:

  • The 2022 CREA Award.
  • A lead research position at NYU Steinhardt.
  • Volunteer work with Covenant House and the National Alliance for Mental Health (NAMI).

Her science-backed method of Neural Rewiring has successfully guided thousands of clients toward happier, more productive, and more resilient lives.