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The Briefcase Rule: Decisions Under Stress

Permission to pause before deciding when self-control wanes

You are more likely to sacrifice your own time and energy to help your partner or loved one if your self-control is taxed, according to research recently published in Psychological Science ( Righetti, Finkenauer & Finkel, 2013). The study, by Francesca Righetti of VU University of Amsterdam and colleagues, challenges prevailing psychological theories that say more, rather than less, self-control is necessary to overcome the natural human tendency to be selfish when it comes to helping others.

This is another bit of evidence that our decision-making isn’t as much under our control as we like to think. As Nobel Prize winning work in Behavioral Economics has shown, the human brain in influenced by all kinds of things flying under our conscious radar, from perceptual shortcuts to emotions and expectations, that interfere with our ability to make the “best” decisions.

These findings by Righetti and colleagues are helpful if you’re one of those harried folks who feel they constantly do too much for others. It suggests all that self-sacrificing may not be your inability to set interpersonal boundaries, but something more innate and habitual when you’re under stress. This knowledge means you can offset the tendency to over-function for your loved ones. Try applying the Briefcase Rule to help you avoid making decisions under stress when self-control wanes.

The Briefcase Rule was immortalized in our family years ago over a decision about purchasing, as you might have guessed, a briefcase--a rather expensive briefcase. While purchasing expensive consumer goods is not the same as self-sacrificing behavior, the rule has evolved over time and taken on a more global meaning and application. The Briefcase Rule is invoked when a delayed decision limits the impact of emotional or sensory overload, such as yelling kids, whining spouses, eager salespeople, a persistent co-worker, the urge to prove your self worth or the need to look caring and responsible. By waiting, you empower yourself to regain your self-control and make a more informed decision and a less "primal" one. It only requires enough self-awareness to recognize that you're about to make a decision and it gives you a preplanned out; it does not require you to figure out the answer, explain or anything else.

The Briefcase Rule is a decision-making hall pass and can be applied anytime you feel that delaying a response—however briefly--is helpful.

Pausing before deciding - The Briefcase Rule

For many years, we have accepted the theories that say we self-control to overcome our innate human selfishness and do things that further the interests of others instead of ourselves. People under time pressure or low in self-control were found to be more likely to be selfish, presumably because they didn’t have the ability to expend the cognitive effort to be prosocial. The study by Righetti and colleagues adds an interesting wrinkle, suggesting that our selfish response to overload may only be true for people we don't know. In fact, that lack of self-control due to pressure or stress has the opposite effect when we’re deciding to do something on behalf of those we care about. They found that lack of self-control actually increased self-sacrificing for our nearest and dearest.

The results make sense through the lens of evolutionary psychology. Strengthening interpersonal connections within the nuclear group, family or tribe would be a natural impulse in response to stress or external threat. Social connections have been and still are key to our emotional and physical survival, functions of the same drive for survival as when humans were hunter-gatherers on the Savannah. Agreeing to go out of your way to pick up someone's dry cleaning during rush hour may be triggered by the same urges as sacrificing for loved ones in the face of a saber-toothed tiger, but it doesn’t have the same bang for the buck at the end of the day.

Our unconscious tendency to sacrifice for our loved ones is a useful thing to know because it can help untangle cycles of obligation, expectation and resentment in a relationship without getting into the blame thing. If you were stressed and distracted, agreeing to inconvenience yourself for your spouse when he/she asked was a natural, innate response. It was not your weakness; so don’t beat yourself up over it. And it’s not their fault you said yes either.

Whatever the cause, you may not feel very happy if this is a recurring pattern of behavior. Consistently doing more than your share may seem generous, but it does not contribute to a better relationship.

In fact, a pattern of repeated one-way sacrifice can create anger and resentment in both people, undermining intimacy and trust. If you are the person doing all the sacrificing, you may start to build expectations that the other person "owes" you for all the sacrifices you have made. The other person, of course, won't even be aware of your internal accounting system of debits and credit since it’s all happening inside your own head. They may become equally resentful wondering why you’re so cranky and unreasonable about something you wanted them to do in return. Particularly if they say no.

This is why our family uses Briefcase Rule. The Briefcase Rule is a plan of action that you can fall back on so you don’t have to make decisions under stress. Announcing that you are enacting the briefcase rule says that unless you absolutely have to, you aren’t going to make a decision right at this moment. Some people are able to live a life of balance and equanimity and don’t have this challenge. Others are able to take a deep breath, clear their minds and calmly and rationally focus on the decision at hand. For the rest of us, there’s the Briefcase Rule.

It obviously helps to have explained the Briefcase Rule with those around you so they don’t think you’ve gone off your rocker. In an unstressed moment, you explain that you have come to recognize that making a decision under stress and distraction is a bad idea and that, for their benefit and yours, you are going to delay decisions that come up in times of pressure. (You can always add something about scientific research if you feel you need more justification). Then, instead of having to makeup a potential flammable statement at the time, you can just say “Briefcase Rule,” and everybody knows to lay off.

Using the Briefcase Rule can also help you become aware of your decision-making patterns. When you use the Briefcase Rule, it means you revisit the delayed questions when you’re feeling less stressed. This give you the chance to reflect on things like:

  • “What are the situations that have resulted in choices I would rather not have made?”
  • “What was I reacting to?”

Identifying these times will help to cultivate some awareness of your internal dialogue, put you more in tune with your somatic responses (i.e. that pit in your stomach when you agreed to do something that you didn’t want to), and evaluate whether or not you are unconsciously attaching any “strings” or expectations.

The Briefcase Rule can keep you from giving away what you don’t want to give. This in itself will diminish some stress. And you can still sacrifice all you want, too, but you will at least know you really want to do it.


Francesca Righetti, Catrin Finkenauer, and Eli J. Finkel (2013) Low Self-Control Promotes the Willingness to Sacrifice in Close Relationships. Psychological Science doi:10.1177/0956797613475457

More from Pamela B. Rutledge Ph.D., M.B.A.
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