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Fear

Why Narcissists Can Struggle with Decision-Making

Are you stuck because you can’t stand making a mistake?

Key points

  • Anticipated regret is why people often prefer to stand still rather than move forward.
  • People with narcissistic disorders experience regret as humiliating.
  • Many people with narcissistic disorders have difficulty making decisions because of their fear of shame.

Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli psychologist and economist who was awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, argues that fear of regret is the greatest enemy of good decision-making.

In an insightful article about the psychological roots of why people resist taking the COVID vaccine, Adam Galinsky uses Kahneman’s theory to explain why we need mandates: Many people are afraid that they’ll make a bad decision because they are influenced by the psychology of anticipated regret. When humans make decisions, they engage in a cost-benefit analysis. But potential bad outcomes weigh heavier on the mind than equally or even more likely positive possibilities.

People anticipate feeling the most regret when outcomes result from taking action as opposed to declining to act. Kahneman found that people anticipate feeling more regret if they were to lose money by buying a new stock as opposed to taking a loss on their current stock. This regret is intensified when the action is voluntary, not ordered.

Anticipated regret is why people often prefer to stand still rather than move forward.

Applying that logic to vaccination mandates, Galinsky argues that mandates externalize responsibility for getting vaccinated—shifting it from the self to others—making it easier to go forward with getting a shot. People don’t have to worry as much about anticipated regret; they can put responsibility on their company or city or state that mandated the shot.

Source: Marie-Michele Bouchard/Unsplash

Chris Guthrie, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, applied Kahneman’s theory to litigation. Guthrie found that individuals will seek to make decisions that minimize the likelihood they will experience post-decision regret. Regret is most likely to arise when individuals discover that they would have obtained better outcomes if they had decided differently. Guthrie found that people who have to choose between settlement and a trial prefer settlement because it minimizes the likelihood that they will experience regret. Settling reduces regret by allowing litigants to avoid discovering that a trial might have been the better decision; a trial offers no such protection.

Kahneman’s theory explains why decision-making is difficult for all of us. But for people with narcissistic disorders, fear of regret is even more powerful because they do not simply experience anxiety about making a mistake or fear of failure; they experience regret as humiliating. The characteristics we associate with narcissistic personalities, e.g., fantasies of grandiosity and a sense of entitlement, are the defenses against shame. People with shame-related problems were likely raised in an environment in which they were not allowed to get things wrong, and mistakes subjected them to humiliation.

Fear of shame can also impact decision-making.

  • Jessica lived with Dennis for over 20 years but refused to get married. Having been married previously, she knew that she could get divorced if the marriage did not work out, but the imagined shame of making a decision she might later regret was so powerful that she continually refused Dennis’ proposals.
  • Karen knew that the Board of Directors of her company was going to ask her to resign when she was 60 years old, so at 59, she interviewed for other jobs. She got an offer that would have paid her as much as her current job, but refused it. She feared feeling ashamed if she left and later regretted it. A year later, she was fired.
  • Sam is unhappy in a sexless marriage; he and his wife constantly bicker. Multiple attempts at marriage counseling have not helped them. Sam remains in the marriage because he fears he will feel shame if he leaves and experiences any remorse.

In general, fear of regret is the greatest enemy of good decision-making. But for people with narcissistic issues, this fear is compounded by the fear of feeling shame. There are so many decisions in life: buying a home, leaving a job, getting married, having a child, getting divorced. Being tied to the status quo because of the fear of regret is difficult enough, but not moving forward because of the fear of being ashamed if it does not work out can be even more powerful and paralyzing.

References

Galinsky, Adam (2021). The ‘psychology of regret’ helps explain why vaccine mandates work. The Washington Post, November 11.

Guthrie, Chris (1999). Better Settle than Sorry: The Regret Aversion Theory of Litigation Behavior. Vanderbilt University Law School Faculty Publications Faculty Scholarship.

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