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The Stress of Making the Right Choice

Being satisfied with your choices in life depends on your decision-making style.

A recent study published in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology looked at the potential distress caused by decision-making. What they found was making decisions only seems to be distressing when you’re overly concerned with making the right one. It’s a matter of the decision-making style that a person is predisposed to.

The good news is, the research suggests a way you can modify your orientation towards decision making such that it isn’t always such a daunting task.

The features of different decision-making styles

Research in personality psychology has found that different people tend to make decisions differently. While this might seem obvious, a concept called regulatory-mode theory suggests that there are two main categories your decision making style can fall under at any given time.

In one category, called assessment-oriented decision making, you’ll find yourself overly preoccupied with doing what’s ‘right’. Individuals prone to assessment-oriented decision-making are often obsessed with finding the one ‘truth’ and doing things the ‘proper way’. If you’ve ever found yourself feeling like you’d “rather be right than be happy”- you were most likely in an assessment state.

Source: Source: Pixabay

On the other hand, locomotion-oriented decision making is motivated by movement and change. Locomotion decision makers are decisive and quick to take action. While assessment-folk are too busy worrying about making the perfect choice, the locomotor is already half-way done. Think Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan.

In the current study, the authors predicted that chronic tendencies towards either decision-making style would result in different attitudes towards making decisions. What they found was, individuals leaning more toward an assessment-style were more prone to distress when making decisions than those with more locomotion tendencies.

You’re probably wondering what style of decision making is better. What the authors found was that when it comes to ‘everyday’ decisions (such as making a to-do list or deciding what to eat for dinner) locomotion seems to be the better option. Not only is it quicker, but it’s more likely to get the job done, and you often end up more satisfied with the outcome of your choice. As in a flow state, you initiate a plan and stick to it.

Due to its strong association with mental distress, research suggests that assessment style decision making should only be reserved for ‘high stakes’ decisions such as major financial investments or life-altering choices.

The studies and findings

In the first study, the authors wanted to test whether a person’s predisposed regulatory mode would predict their level of distress during a decision-making task. The study was conducted near the holidays and participants were asked to choose a gift for one of their friends from a catalogue of winter gear.

In order to determine whether they were assessment- or locomotion- oriented, they were asked to fill out a questionnaire. The researchers then asked participants to indicate the extent to which they felt any negative or positive emotion during the gift-choice and to rate it’s difficulty. They found that assessment-oriented individuals were more prone to negative emotions while making the gift decision and also rated it as more difficult than locomotion-oriented individuals.

The second study followed the same pattern, only this time the researchers were interested in how these effects played a role during a major life event. The researchers asked 67 prospective brides questions about their regulatory mode. They were then asked to recall their personal experiences planning and making decisions for their wedding. The researchers found brides with assessment tendencies were more concerned with making the wrong decisions for their big day, and found it to be more difficult of an experience than those with a locomotion regulatory style.

The goal of Study 3 was to assess whether previous findings could be replicated with respect to political decision-making. During the 2016 American Presidential Election, participants were asked to describe how they made their voting decision, and to rate their feelings as they did so. They also rated the difficulty of and their satisfaction with their decision. They found assessment-oriented individuals were more distressed while deciding which candidate to vote for and overall less satisfied with their final decision.

The goal of Study 4 was to test whether regulatory mode had any affect on decision making in the context of task prioritization. Again, the researchers had the participants complete a questionnaire designed to determine their regulatory mode. They were then asked to create a to-do list composed of 5 tasks. The researchers then had participants rank their tasks in terms of their priority. They were then asked questions related to their experience prioritizing tasks. Again, the study found individuals with higher assessment tendencies were more likely to feel distressed during the prioritization task.

The fifth study used the same prioritization task as the fourth, only this time the researchers subjected participants to one of two conditions. In one condition, the researchers primed individuals to be more ‘assessment-prone’ by having them read a scientific-sounding blurb talking about the importance of being “scrupulous”. In the other condition, participants were primed to be more ‘locomotion-prone’ by having them read a paragraph talking about the importance of being a ‘doer’.

This priming approach allowed researchers to experimentally asses whether there’s a direct causal effect of the decision styles on affective states. Replicating the previous studies, the researchers again found that assessment-oriented people were more distressed during the prioritization task than those subjected to the locomotion condition.

Results applied: adapt your decision-making style


There’s value in drawing on self-assessments to figure out what style you’re most prone to. In doing so, you’ll make it easier to ensure that you’re applying the appropriate style in the appropriate context.

Researchers in personality psychology have curated ways to capture key elements of both regulatory modes.

Source: Source: Pixabay

Try this: Rank the following 5 items from 1-5 (1 = strongly disagree, 5=strongly agree). Then, add up your score (out of total 25).

  1. I don't mind doing things even if they involve extra effort.
  2. I am a “workaholic.”
  3. I feel excited just before I am about to reach a goal.
  4. I enjoy actively doing things, more than just watching and observing.
  5. By the time I accomplish a task, I already have the next one in mind.

Now, follow the same instructions using the following 5 items.

  1. I spend a great deal of time taking inventory of my positive and negative characteristics.
  2. I am very self-critical and self-conscious about what I am saying.
  3. I often think that other people’s choice and decisions are wrong.
  4. I often critique work done by myself and others
  5. When I meet a new person I usually evaluate how well he or she is doing on various dimensions (e.g., looks, achievements, social status, clothes).

Once you’ve tallied up your scores for both sections, compare the two. If your score for the first 5 is closer to 25 than your score for the last 5, then you likely depend on a locomotion regulatory mode to make most of your decisions. If, however, you’re closer to 25 on the second portion, you’re likely more of an assessor.

Keep these in mind as you consider the situation. You’ll know your starting point.


In order to determine what type of decision style to use, you must first assess the type of decision you’re making. High-stakes decisions are those better made using an assessment-orientation. Whereas low-stakes decisions are better tackled using a locomotion-orientation.

A high-stakes decision is defined by:

  • Having a single & defined yes/no answer
  • Having a clear line between right and wrong
  • Having immediate consequences to the self and others if made incorrect

A low-stakes decision can be defined by:

  • Carrying no significant or public consequences
  • Meaning more to the individual than to anyone else
  • Having no clear yes/no binary


Once you’ve figured out what type of decision you’re about to make, it’s time to modify your decision-making style to suit the situation. Recall that a low-stakes decision is better tackled by locomotive decision making whereas a high-stakes situation is better handled using assessment.

You’ll want to elicit a mindset that is matched to the situation. You can prime yourself with the following:

Prime a locomotion regulatory mode by watching or reading content related to:

  • Action or superheroes
  • Sports games or athletes
  • Emergency room or first response situations

Prime an assessment regulatory mode by watching or reading content related to:

  • Crime scene investigation
  • Scientific research
  • Financial investment

Interested in making better choices? Learn more behavioral insights for improving your decision-making abilities.


Chen, C. Y., Rossignac-Milon, M., & Higgins, E. T. (2018). Feeling Distressed From Making Decisions: Assessors’ Need to Be Right. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

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