Mind & Body

This Is Why It's so Hard to Make a Decision With Friends

You've probably been in this situation: You and a friend are out together, trying to make a decision about where to eat. Despite a flurry of suggestions, the two of you either try to convince each other that your favorite place is better, or you both insist on whatever the other person wants. The result of either scenario is the same: You both end up at a place that really isn't all that great, thanks to a decision born out of compromise instead of preference. Why is it so hard to decide on a place to eat? Well, as it turns out, the reason why this happens isn't that you and your buddy are all that different from each other.

A Friendly Hypothesis

Curious about why this type of causal decision making is filled with so much pressure, researchers from Boston College, Georgia Tech, and Washington State University recently decided to conduct a study on the matter. They had a pretty strange hypothesis: Rather than both people advocating for what they want or both people acquiescing to the others' wishes, they thought that it would be a better result for both parties if one person acted selfishly while the other was unselfish.

See, they figured that if both people were selfish, they'd have trouble agreeing on a decision. Let's say you and your friend are both acting selfishly and start by suggesting the place you each want to eat. You name different places, and since you're both selfish, you both refuse to concede. Instead, the two of you list more places to eat until you come to some negotiation that makes it feel like you both win. More than likely, the place you settled on was just a mediocre burger joint that was much further down the list of places you'd like to eat than it needed to be. In other words, the researchers thought a decision made by two selfish people would be one neither of them is crazy about.

If you both act unselfishly, the results are similar, except that you're both too gracious to let your preferences override someone else's. The dynamic will continue until you compromise — and likely decide to eat at the same lousy burger joint where your selfish doppelgangers ended up, all because you were too nice to state your real preference.

However, if one of you is selfish and the other is unselfish, the researchers believed, the selfish person will pick a legitimately good place to eat and the unselfish person will agree to it. While you might think this is unfair to the unselfish person, in reality, the end result will be better than what the compromise would have been. That's because two people's individual tastes probably aren't so different to begin with, so one person's number-one pick is likely to still be a pretty good choice for the other person.

Live From New York, It's Social Science!

To test their hypothesis, the researchers first had 151 participants take a questionnaire to gauge their level of selfishness, then watch a series of "Saturday Night Live" videos and rank them in order of their favorites. Finally, the participants were randomly paired together and asked to decide on one video to watch together.

The results lent plenty of support to the researchers' hunch. If a person ended up with a selfish partner, the more selfish that person was, the less likely it was that the two would reach a satisfactory decision (meaning that they'd end up watching the SNL equivalent of that lousy burger joint). On the other hand, if someone ended up with an unselfish partner, the more selfish that person was — that is, the less two people matched in their selfishness scores — the more likely it was that they'd end up watching a video they both liked.

In a second study, they also tracked negotiation times. Unsurprisingly, they found that people who have similar dispositions (either both selfish or both unselfish) negotiated about things more than if they had opposing dispositions (a selfish person with an unselfish person). Two selfish people negotiated the most, to the point of countering the other selfish person even if they liked the same thing. In other words, some selfish people argue for the sake of arguing.

So the next time you and a buddy are straining to come up with a preference for a movie or a place to eat, consider your interpersonal dynamic. If your buddy leans toward the selfish side, it might be best for both of you to go along with their suggestions. But if your friend is more of a people pleaser, skip the niceties and tell them where you really want to go. Otherwise, you'll both end up back at that lousy burger joint.

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For more decisionmaking advice, check out "Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work" by Chip and Dan Heath. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Brian VanHooker May 29, 2019

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