Three little words, suggests a new study: Let it go.

February 15, 2017
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If you can’t stop stressing over a decision that you made hours, days, or even weeks ago, you might have FOBO: Fear of a Better Option. According to new research, it’s a common phenomenon that happens when people become so focused on making the perfect choice that they keep thinking back to options they previously ruled out.

FOBO often leads to frustration and regret, say the study authors, and it shows that it’s not always just the outcome of a decision that matters; sometimes the decision-making process itself can affect our health and wellbeing, as well.

In a series of experiments published last week in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, University of Waterloo psychologists examined different types of “maximizers”—people who make decisions by performing extensive searches to find the absolute best choice possible. That might mean reading through an entire menu three times before placing your lunch order, or considering every possible vacation spot around the globe before booking a trip.

One type of maximizer, for example, is “promotion-focused.” These people tend to make decisions based largely on what will give them the biggest gains—financial, societal, or otherwise. In their experiments, the researchers found that these people tend to make up their minds fairly quickly, and were usually satisfied with their choices and experienced little regret.

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But another type, known as “assessment-focused” maximizers, spend more time weighing their options and considering many different factors—like what others might do in their situation, or which choice will make them look good to their friends. The problem, say the researchers, is that they can’t stop ruminating over all of their options, even the ones they’ve discarded.

“The general mindset of this type of person is something like, ‘I don't want to do anything until I've figured out the right thing to do,’” says lead author Jeff Hughes, Ph.D., professor of social psychology. “While that can be useful sometimes, it can also lead people to get locked into a state where they keep evaluating and re-evaluating without making any decision.”

And that’s when FOBO sets in. “It wasn't looking at more options that ended up being negative, but continuing to bring options back into reconsideration,” Hughes says. “What led to frustration and regret was when a participant looked at an option, decided it wasn't a good option and eliminated it, but then later ended up bringing it back into consideration again.”

Not only can this keep people from enjoying the option they actually chose, but previous research has shown that this type of decision-making is associated with depression and procrastination, as well. “If you tend to feel frustrated or regretful about decisions on a regular basis, that can lead to some pretty negative outcomes, like lower satisfaction with life,” Hughes says.

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So how can you avoid FOBO? Hughes’ research so far has only focused on identifying the problem, not testing out actual solutions. But he does have a few suggestions.

“Broadly speaking, I think our research would suggest that it may be helpful for people to remind themselves to ‘let go’ of those bad options,” he says. Yes, you should still consider all of your choices—especially for big, important decisions. But you should also “try to trust your gut when you look at an option and feel like it’s not a good one,” he adds.

For less important decisions, he says, try to rely on a standard of “good enough.” Think about the minimum quality you’d be happy with, and look for something that beats it. Pick that one—and then stop looking. “It’s a way to simplify the decision and move onto things that are more important to you,” he says.

If that doesn’t work on its own, he says, give yourself a time limit. Maximizers tend to put off making a final decision for as long as possible, Hughes says, holding out hopes that they’ll find something better. That may seem smart, but it means they’ll continue to wonder, “what if?”

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“Tell yourself, ‘I am going to spend 30 minutes researching plane tickets, and that's it—then I'm buying the best one and moving on,’” he says. “Remember that when making a decision, your time is also a cost, so why not spend that time on the decisions that are most important to you?”

Hughes stresses that his research hasn’t examined decision quality, so there’s no guarantee these strategies can help you truly book the best trip, save the most money, or make smarter decisions overall. But at least you might feel better about your choices once you’ve finally made them—which is certainly a benefit in itself.

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