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The Psychology of Decision-Making

When is a coin-flip appropriate for making a decision?

Key points

  • Don't demand a guarantee.
  • Don't demand a perfect decision.
  • Don't expect to reach a decision with no disadvantages.

Why do some people feel paralyzed when faced with making a decision? REBT/CBT therapists highlight this emotional reality: our emotions and behaviors are generated by our thinking about events, not by the events themselves. With this in mind, we'll examine the thinking of an indecisive person.

Suppose you're unemployed and seriously behind on your rent payments with eviction looming. You're considering taking out a loan as a last resort. You finally get a job offer having both advantages and disadvantages. Do you take the job or continue your job search? What about the opportunity costs of taking the job, and then missing the opportunity of getting a better offer that may come along? Making the best decision is a practical problem. But suppose you also have an emotional problem with deciding?

As noted, emotional problems don't come from situations themselves, in this case the difficult decision about the job offer, rather they come from your demanding irrational thinking about the advantages and disadvantages. Some of these may include: I must make a perfect decision, I must make the right decision, I must make a decision my partner, relatives, and friends will approve of, I must make a decision that has all advantages and no disadvantages, I must decide immediately, once I've made a decision I must not regret the decision I've made, I must not feel anxious about making a decision.

If you have difficulty making a decision and your must is, for example, "I must not regret my decision," use this process to diagnose what's occurring:

A. (Activating event): I got a job offer. The position has both advantages and disadvantages.

B. (irrational Belief): I must make the right decision.

C. (Undesirable emotional/behavioral Consequences): Indecisive, procrastinating, anxious.

We've diagnosed the problem at A, B, and C. Now we can treat it at D, E, and F:

D. (Disputing or questioning the irrational belief): What is the evidence I absolutely must make the right decision? Where is this written? How does thinking this way help?

E. (Effective new thinking and answer to the question): There is no evidence, logic, or pragmatics necessitating that I make the right decision. It would be preferable to do so, but a preference does not equal a must. I would dislike making a poor decision, but I can stand what I don't like. I've survived poor decisions in the past and I'll survive this time. Pressuring myself to make the right decision doesn't help and only makes me feel worse. Since situations and contexts change with time the best decision now may change as the job proceeds. There is no sure way of determining what the best decision is and I'm wasting my time stewing about it. Even if, in the unlikely case I always make poor decisions, it would not be the end of the universe, at worst it would be disadvantageous. It's not the possibility of making a poor decision that causes my indecisiveness, but rather it's my irrational "must" thinking about it that's my problem.

F. (New feeling or behavior): If I'm still undecided, flip a coin and then follow through.


Edelstein, M.R. & Steele, D.R. (2019). Three Minute Therapy: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life. San Francisco, CA: Gallatin House.

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