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What It Means to "Overthink It"

Overcoming fear and procrastination to make the hard choices in life.

Source: BPTU/Shutterstock

Consider the following choices: Whether to invest in buying a house, end a long-term relationship, or move to another country. When we face these and other "crossroad" choices, we want to get the decision right. To do that we need to imagine the various futures that each choice provides. For example, "What will it be like if we buy a house now/end the relationship/move?" Prospective imagining and anticipation of these various future possibilities are generally considered hallmarks of good decision-making. Gary Klein has studied expert decision making and found that anticipating what things will look like if we do A as opposed to B helps us make predictions, respond to events rather than be taken by surprise, and prevent or mitigate negative outcomes.

But is there a point at which we can think too much? Can we spend too much time anticipating possible futures? And if so—what are the consequences?

We are interested in the concept of overthinking choices. We coined the term "redundant deliberation" to describe occasions where an individual becomes stuck in a perpetual loop of considering all the various options but with diminishing returns on their cognitive effort.

When individuals are engaged in redundant deliberation they tend to do two things. First, they keep seeking more information even though it is evident that in doing so there is nothing new that would help inform their choice. Second, they continue to oscillate between imaging alternate future states.

At the point where effort exceeds any new information to help inform choice and where there are no useful differences to the imagined future modeled states, we argue that you can think too much about a problem. More concerning is that overthinking can lead to unnecessary delay and decision inertia. Inertia is problematic when the failure to act in time (or at all) carries significant negative consequences.

The concept of the negative consequences of overthinking rather than simply just getting on with committing has also emerged in philosophical conundrums. For example, in "Buridan’s Ass," an ass which has traveled for many miles without food or water is both starving and dehydrated. It sees a pail of water and a bale of hay. It thinks to itself, "Should I drink first or eat? Which must I do first? Am I more hungry than thirsty? What happens if I drink first (as opposed to eat?)" and so on. In spending all this time thinking about preferences and where both are very important, in needless delay the ass dies of both hunger and starvation. Sometimes, there is a place to think and sometimes a place to act.

In our work with emergency services (law enforcement, fire, ambulance, etc.) we have found that many of the public inquiries into "what went wrong" are examples of redundant deliberation and failures to act. This is perhaps unsurprising since the likelihood of inertia is exacerbated when options are unclear, stakes are high and committing to a choice then becomes irreversible (i.e. you can’t go back and try the option you did not take).

Consider, for example, a fire officer's option when examining a burning high-rise. What advice does s/he give those inside that building? To stick to fire policy and "stay put" since, not uncommonly, buildings are designed such that staying within a zone not currently affected is often safer than risking coming down a flight of stairs adjacent to floors on which the fire is currently burning? Or, given that the fire now seems to be getting worse and spreading, perhaps the stay-put policy for this building is not right and s/he should advise those on the higher floors to go against the fire policy and make a run for it. In considering stay put vs. make a run for it, that fire officer has to weigh options, realize that the clock is ticking, and appreciate that if the fire isn’t behaving normally and that it is not being contained, that an option that should have been taken earlier (evacuate) is now rapidly disappearing.

In such cases, we have found that those that excel in overcoming overthinking tend to be very goal focused, have an excellent appreciation of whether (or not) they need to act imminently (or use the appropriate delay to find out more information). Importantly, they are more able to tolerate the least bad options. This means that they adopt a satisficing approach to decision making. Those that are maximizers tend to imagine that there must be some other third option that is not bad at all and in doing so run the risk of failing to appreciate a tolerable risk is better than doing nothing. Of course, maximizing can be advantageous if there really is a third way or at least a way to slow an incident down but if that is not the case a satisficing mindset may be more appropriate. It is knowing what mindset to deploy when that is key.

As well as beginning to uncover what can make decision makers more able to make these calculations we have discovered that military personnel tend to be less prone to redundant deliberation. There are several possible reasons why, and evidence is mixed as to which of these is most significant.

First, several studies have now established that military personnel tend to score lower on agreeableness, lower on neuroticism and lower on openness to experience. That is, they are less concerned to please others, more emotionally stable, and less open to ideas. These factors may make them more able to reduce options quickly and effectively and with less concern about consequences. Second, military personnel tend to be very goal-directed—i.e., less concerned about how or why to achieve the objective but simply to complete the mission. Third, the military drills in the notion that making a decision is better than constant consideration (especially in circumstances where time is of the essence).

Our work continues to consider these important differences and establish how and when a military mindset may be beneficial. So, whilst there are a plethora of studies on what we do when various stimuli cause us to act in various ways, we continue to explore why, in the face of stimuli that present us with difficult choices, some of us fail to act in time (or at all)—even when non-action is actually far worse than an action with potentially undesirable consequences.