Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jul 01, 2015

Indecision and the Construction of Self

Woman holding angel version of herself in one hand and devilish version in the other hand

By Daniel Newark

Many of us believe that what matters most about the choices we face are the decisions we ultimately make.  Which college did she pick?  Did they stay together?  Did you have the burger or the salad?  To emphasize decisions as the denouement of choice is understandable, but it risks obscuring other important functions of choosing.  The ways we act while deciding are more than just the mechanics for reaching a decision; they are rites and venerations that can inspire the insights of human development.  In a recent article in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, I argue that this is perhaps never more likely than when we are indecisive.  Though usually disparaged as some combination of choice pathology and character foible, indecision can be an important tool for shaping one’s identity.  Under the guise of trying to figure out what to do, individuals sometimes form who they are.

Indecision frequently arises when we aspire to some form of reasoned decision-making, but find the process untenable.  And with good cause.  Decision-making scholars have noted that most conceptions of intelligent decision-making rely heavily on two guesses about the future.  The first guess is what consequences will result from a particular action.  The second guess is how we will feel about those consequences when they come to pass.  Neither guess is trivial.  Information about our possible actions is often incomplete, and their consequences cannot be anticipated reliably.  Similarly, we do not always know what we want right now, let alone what we will want once the consequences of our decisions reveal themselves.  As Proust articulated the problem, “impelled by a state of mind which is destined not to last,… we make our irrevocable decisions.”

Limitations to omniscience and clairvoyance, particularly for those who fear regret, make choosing thorny.  Typically, people respond to this distress over what to do by repeatedly thinking and talking to others about what they might do.  At some point, these reflections and conversations are criticized as circuitous and profitless.  But identity research suggests several ways in which the contortionate behaviors of indecision can be well-suited to self-development.  For example, thoughtful decision-making is associated with decision-oriented questions such as, What are my options?, What will happen if I choose this option versus that one?, and How desirable is that outcome?  But the more these questions seem unanswerable, the more decision-makers—often unwittingly—begin to ask proximal, more self-oriented questions about what they believe, feel, fear, hope for, have done before, and value.  The result is an intricate dance whose semblance is decision-making but whose substance is self-examination.

Sometimes we perform this dance alone, but often we involve others, asking those who care about us to answer the questions we ourselves haven’t been able to answer.  Spurred by hopes for succor, we listen closely to their responses.  Almost invariably they can’t answer these questions either, but when friends and loved ones are asked for help they cannot give, they give what help they can.  In the case of indecision, this means sharing advice and stories that communicate experiences, beliefs, and behaviors we may then internalize.    Moreover, the mere act of consulting others—divulging hardship and receiving attention—strengthens our defining bonds.

Along with helping us clarify who we are, indecision also helps us accept who we are not.  There is a French proverb that says, “To choose is to die a little.” This proverb speaks to our unfortunate inability to hedge actions and identities like we hedge investments, diversifying ourselves into all the lives that allure us and might pay off.  Esther Greenwood, the narrator in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, describes the predicament:

From the tip of every branch, like a far purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.  I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest…  

Choice can be a precipice past which a single possible self will emerge actualized, while all other possible selves must fall to the ground below, landing in a heap of what might have been.  Repeatedly considering and discussing decision alternatives can be part of the funeral rites for the identities we are reluctant to forego.

Though indecision rarely receives much praise or championing, research has shown a well-defined identity to be beneficial for (among other things) finding meaning in life, developing intimate relationships, and ontological and existential security.  Decision torment inspires introspection and conversations of meaning.  Ostensibly, the topic is the decision at hand and the aim is to decide well, but deliberation does not always improve decisions, and advice that is sought is often ignored.  On the other hand, thinking and talking about unnavigable choices can be instrumental to forming who we are.

Daniel A. Newark is an assistant professor of Management at the University of Southern Denmark.  He holds an MA in economics and a PhD in organization studies from Stanford University.  Information about his research can be found at



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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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