Have you ever been faced with a lose-lose situation, a decision you had to make in which neither outcome was good? Maybe you once had to decide between putting down a beloved pet and trying to prolong its life with risky medical treatment? Lose-lose decisions appear everyday: deciding between tedious tasks from your boss at work, less-than-appetizing cafeteria options for lunch, and unpleasant household chores when you get home. And as you say goodbye to your dog, or bite into that mystery meat, you might start to question whether you made the right decision after all.
That unease has been well-documented by past research. When deciding between undesirable options (vs. desirable ones), people have been shown to feel less confident in their decision and less satisfied by the outcomes. The logic, this research proposed, was that all the negative affect from going over the bad options (e.g., how terrible to sentence your dog to death, how to cruel to prolong its suffering) spilled over into your evaluation of the decision as a whole. Not only, then, do you get stuck with a bad outcome, you also feel bad about it.
My co-authors (Jeff Galak, Joe Simmons, Leif Nelson) and I wanted to see if this salt on the wound could be avoided. Past researchers were not able to test the above spillover account directly, so we proposed an alternative: rephrasing the decision to better match the outcomes. In all previous work on this topic, the decisions were phrased as choices. However, this positively framed decision (e.g., “which one do you want?”) only matched up with positive options, not negative options. Could we reduce or even eliminate the bad feelings that result from lose-lose decisions by rephrasing the decision to match the outcomes?
In our research, we rephrased the choice as rejections (e.g. “which one do you not want?”). When you only have two options, choosing and rejecting have the same result, but past research has shown they can feel very different. Four of the five studies in our paper that tests this idea use the same design: Participants saw pairs of positive options (e.g., attractive faces, pleasant concepts like peace and love) and pairs of negative options (e.g., unattractive faces, unpleasant concepts like poison and slaughter). For each pair, some participants were asked to choose the one they liked more, as in previous research. Other participants, however, were asked to reject the one they liked less. To get a sense of how participants felt afterwards, we asked participants how easy the decision felt to make, how confident they were in their decision, and what percentage of other participants would make the same decision as they did.
Our results confirmed our expectations. When participants were asked to choose, we saw the same results as in past research: greater ease, confidence, and perceived agreement when faced with good options (a positive decision with positive outcomes – a match) and less when faced with bad options (a positive decision with negative outcomes – a mismatch). However, we found the opposite when participants were asked to reject: they felt less ease, confidence, and perceived agreement when faced with good options and more when faced with bad options. Put another way, when the decision’s phrasing and its options matched—choosing from good things or rejecting from bad things—participants felt better than when there was a mismatch.
Overall, we found that unease and uncertainty from lose-lose decisions can be largely avoided, given the right framing of the choice. If you have to make a lose-lose decision, your best bet is to think about rejecting one of your bad options, rather than choosing one of those options. Rephrasing a decision to better match its outcomes can give you greater confidence and perceived agreement with your decision. In the future, it would be useful to expand the scope of this research: Our studies only looked at binary choices, but decisions frequently have many options to decide between. Moreover, we have only showed that people feel better making matched decisions; it remains to be seen whether these good feelings lead to better or more accurate decisions. For now, at least, we know that lose-lose decisions are not a lost cause: We can make rejecting a bad option feel like choosing a good one
Further reading: Perfecto, H., Galak, J., Simmons, J. P., & Nelson, L. D. (2017). Rejecting a Bad Option Feels Like Choosing a Good One. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Funding acknowledgement: This work was partially supported by the Fetzer-Franklin Fund.