Why Making Decisions for Someone Else Just Feels Right

You’ve just swiped for the 9,000th time on Tinder and finally come up with someone who you think is worth meeting for a drink, but then the usual dread sets in: What should I wear? Have I picked a cool-enough bar? What are we going to talk about? What if he or she is a complete dolt? What’s the point of any of this?

You realize that it’s much easier to give your friends advice on their relationships than continue this charade, so you delete the stupid app and resolve to try harder next time. After all, it’s much easier to apply your misguided instincts to their relationships than deal with them in your own life. No, I am not at all speaking from personal experience.

making decisions rewire PBS
Can’t decide what color to paint your living room? Phone a friend.

While that just seems like a richly developed personal philosophy, it’s actually a common pattern in decision-making, according to new psychology research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Wisconsin School of Business and the University of Minnesota. The study’s authors, Evan Polman of Wisconsin and Kathleen Vohs of Minnesota, find that deciding what someone else should do is less taxing and more pleasant than doing it for ourselves.

Why? Two main reasons—it’s creatively freeing for us to rise to external challenges, and we don’t have to fully consider the consequences of our recommendations. In other words, it’s both more fun and less “real” for someone when his coworker asks for advice than when it comes to solving his own problems.

The first reason—that we think more creatively when considering a challenge that doesn’t involve us—is something that Polman had previously studied. He found that people become more abstract and open-ended when asked to brainstorm on behalf of others; that is, less bogged down by the “How am I going to pay for this?” or “What if he’s a creep?” real-world details we demand of ourselves.

Most importantly, we simply have fun doing these things for others, and we’re often in a more positive and open mood, resulting in less stress as a result of the decision-making process.

The second thought process—that we don’t have to deal with consequences of our advice—is evident when considering dating, physical activity, financial decisions or big vacations. When your time, money, emotional resources or physical effort are involved in realizing a course of action, you’re going to be much more stingy and preservation-oriented than if you’re just offering a friend advice on what to do. To wit: When you enter the home-buying stage of life, it’s way more fun to tell your friends to put in an offer on the just-too-expensive dream home they’re considering than it is to dive into a terrifying, constraining mortgage of your own.

The researchers uncovered these tendencies by giving online surveys to 450 adults that explored their choices in 10 different potential scenarios. Each participant was sorted randomly into one of four groups: one that made choices for themselves; one that made choices for others; one that asked how hard it would be to make a choice for themselves, and one that asked how hard it would be to make a choice for others.

making decisions rewire pbs
Do we think you should buy these pillows for your bedroom? No. (Hey, that did feel good.)

Polman got the idea for this study from his previous research on “decision fatigue”—that making decisions for an extended period of time leads to exhaustion and less involvement in the decision-making process. He found that the length of decision-making sessions determines how much self-control the decision maker has, which can have unsettling real-world effects. For instance, doctors and parole judges made better decisions at the beginning of a workday than at the end; shoppers buying cars chose more default options at the end of the car-buying process, suggesting that they just wanted the sale to finish already. If I’ve learned anything, it’s to schedule doctor visits early in the day.

In the end, Polman and Vohs were able to find a course of action that allows people to alleviate some of the effects of decision fatigue: make a decision for someone else for a change. “Making decisions for others led to more enjoyment of the decision-making process and that led to better self-control,” said Polman.

And, if you aren’t making a decision for someone else, pretend you are: “Our findings suggest that for some people facing difficult choices, it might help to imagine their own choices as belonging to someone else and deciding on the basis of what that other person should do.”

Alex Gaterud

Alex Gaterud is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. As of 2016, the three most important things in his life are Bruce Springsteen, Sour Patch Kids and playing the drums.