Navigating the stuck state: understanding decision paralysis

We’ve all been there: standing at the crossroads of choice, feeling stuck, indecisive or even paralysed by the prospect of making the wrong decision. Whether it’s choosing, or changing, a career path, making a significant life change or even deciding what to have for dinner, the experience of decision paralysis is a common, albeit frustrating, part of the human condition. This state of being stuck can stem from an overwhelming number of options, fear of the unknown or the pressure to make the ‘perfect’ choice.

But what exactly happens in our brains during these moments of indecision? And, more importantly, how can we navigate through them to reach a resolution? This article delves into the neurophysiology of decision-making, offering insights into why we sometimes struggle to make decisions and proposing strategies to overcome this mental gridlock.

Cara McCarthy and Rose Padfield

Understanding decision-making in the human brain

The human brain is a marvel of complexity, structured into three main layers. At its core lies the most primitive parts, which are responsible for basic survival functions such as breathing and hunger.

Surrounding this core is the ancient limbic system, which includes the thalamus, amygdala and hippocampus. This region is where emotions such as fear, aggression and contentment are processed.

You can think of these two layers as the ‘animal brain’ or, as psychiatrist Richard Peterson describes in the Harvard Business Review, the ‘dog brain’.

Encasing the ‘dog brain’ is the cortex, the grey, folded outer layer that houses the most advanced part of the brain. This ‘executive’ region is responsible for higher cognitive processes, such as planning, reasoning, decision-making and the expression of our personalities.

Compared to other mammals, the human cortex is significantly larger, playing a more substantial role in decision-making.

There are all kinds of claims, most of which cannot be substantiated, about the sheer number of decisions humans make on a daily basis. Whether it is as few as 27 genuine decisions in a day or the astonishing 35,000 as some purport, decision-making is a complex process involving multiple brain regions with each contributing unique functions.

These regions form networks that integrate cognitive, emotional and sensory information to guide our choices. Here are some of the ways in which key areas contribute:

  • Prefrontal cortex: Acts as the ‘executive’, evaluating options, updating expectations, planning actions and making choices based on past experiences.
  • Anterior cingulate cortex: Detects errors, monitors conflicts, weighs costs and benefits, and adjusts behaviour accordingly.
  • Amygdala and insula: Assess emotional and risk-related aspects.
  • Basal ganglia and nucleus accumbens: Involved in reward processing, motivation, habit formation and learning.
  • Hippocampus: Provides contextual memory.

In essence, the brain functions as an extensive ‘decision-making network’ where various regions collaborate to influence outcomes. This integrated network allows for flexible, adaptive decision-making, enabling us to navigate complex and dynamic environments effectively.

However, the different parts of the brain may also have separate agendas and compete to influence decisions, which is why some choices can feel more difficult or paralysing. The familiar signs you might be ‘stuck’ include:

  • Finding yourself going round and round in circles thinking ‘I don’t know!’
  • Feeling paralysed by fear and doubt and unable to move forward
  • Delaying the point of decision by continually kicking the issue into the long grass
  • Routinely relying on someone else to make the decision for you
  • Hiding behind process and procedure to avoid having to reach a conclusion
  • Worrying about making a mistake and being seen as wrong or stupid
  • Sticking with what you are familiar with and comfortable and seeking to validate that option over others

The perceived wisdom is that decision-making should be a rational and sequential process that leads to an optimal conclusion. However, research shows that the brain is hardwired to avoid loss even more than it seeks reward.

When we’re stuck in decision paralysis, our brain may be caught in a tug of war between the ‘dog brain’ (fast, instinctive and emotionally biased) and the ‘executive brain’ (slower, more deliberative and rational).

Enhancing decision-making: paying attention to logic and emotion

Typically, decision-making strategies taught to everyone from executives to school children focus on cognitive approaches. These methods involve establishing criteria, gathering options, weighing risks and rewards and making balanced and rational assessments to select the best choice.

These approaches assume that the ‘executive’ or ‘higher mind’ is in charge. However, brain science reveals that the emotional ‘animal mind’ often has its own agenda and assesses situations based on a different set of criteria.

Neuroscience guides us to involve the emotional mind while slowing down the brain’s decision-making processes. Here are five tips to help you get unstuck:

1. Become a mood monitor. Cultivate emotional self-awareness by paying attention to your moods. Pause to ask yourself how your mood may be influencing your decision. According to Richard Peterson, a psychiatrist who applies behavioural economics theory in his investment consulting business, ignoring the dog brain can be perilous. While weighing a decision, stay alert for feelings like excitement and fear, which signal your true appetite for reward or risk. Peterson advises asking, “What causes this feeling? Where did these feelings come from?” Consciously tracking your moods will help your higher mind process your animal mind.

2. Lean less heavily on logic. Logic is not immune to cultural conditioning. Societal expectations, cultural norms and environmental cues affect our choices. Empathy and pressure to conform can inhibit independent thinking. While it’s important to consider the social impact of a decision, be wary of letting this impose unhealthy limitations. Notice if a decision leaves you feeling anxious or uneasy. Sometimes the best choice is the difficult, uncomfortable or unpopular one.

3. Be your own coach. Build your decision-making muscles by asking yourself these questions:

  • What is the cost of doing nothing? Who could get hurt or lose out? Not making a decision is a decision in itself. Can you live with the resulting impact on relationships, health, finances or future opportunities?
  • What assumptions are you making about what will happen if you make a mistake? Are they all valid? Who could you share your assumptions with to gain a different perspective?
  • On a related note, if perfectionism is blocking a decision, what are you sacrificing for the sake of a ‘perfect’ choice? Is this worth the indecision?
  • To become bolder, ask, “What do I see that no one else sees? How does playing it safe serve my goals?” Then, back yourself.
  • Try reverse psychology: “What if this option were taken away from me? How would I feel?”
  • Consider your values. How well do the available options align with your values? Would those who know you best say your choice reflects what you stand for? Listen to your gut, stay true to your values and worry less about pleasing others.
  • Project yourself one, five or 15 years into the future. What would the future you say about this decision?

4. Remain flexible. Remember that, aside from certain situations, a decision does not always have to be final. Believing you can’t change course can make the stakes feel much higher than they really are and can lead to procrastination or paralysis. Remind yourself that it is often possible to make a new decision if the previous one turns out to be poor or not the best course of action. Consider, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and “What would be the real cost of changing my mind?”

5. Develop adaptive decision-making. Adopt an approach that allows you to iterate and learn as you go. Could you run a ‘pilot’ and assess impact, risk and reward through direct experience? Could you visit stakeholders to expand your understanding? Could you widen your perspective by consulting your network? If something doesn’t work, take the learning and apply it to the next decision. Be brave, model transparency and seek feedback on improvements and blind spots. Every decision is an opportunity for learning.

In conclusion, understanding that emotional processing is crucial to good decision-making is essential. Your emotions and sensory experiences should not be ignored or dismissed as irrelevant but rather included in your decision-making processes.

By making space for both logic and emotion you may be able to break the decision deadlock to make more informed, balanced and confident decisions.

Cara and Rose are accredited coaches who work with many leaders to support their thinking and help them expand their sense of what is possible. If you could benefit from dedicated thinking space that is confidential and non-judgemental, please reach out to us.

Contact us here to find out more.

Try this

Watch therapist Emma McAdam share three underlying causes of decision paralysis and two keys to overcoming it in How to stop overthinking decisions and overcome analysis paralysis

Or, learn more about decision fatigue and how to combat it in this TED-Ed video How to make smart decisions more easily

Read the classic Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, world-famous psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Related/further reading

If you found this information useful, you might enjoy our related articles:

Next month

Our next topic looks at strategies for making better decisions in groups and teams.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *