By Francesca Gino. First publised in HBR on 29 October 2013.
High-stakes decisions — which can range from starting a business to consummating a joint venture to hiring or firing someone — have something in common: they involve high levels of uncertainty. When so much is unknown or unknowable, trying to decide what the right course of action might be triggers anxiety. In response, many of us seek the counsel of others to help us make these weighty decisions.
Consulting experts and trusted friends may seem like a wise choice, but it comes with unexpected costs. Recently, my colleagues and I undertook research to understand how anxiety impacts people’s willingness to accept advice from others and their likelihood of following poor guidance (PDF). The upshot? Our natural instincts can get us into a lot of trouble.
In one of our studies, we asked college students to look at a photo of a stranger and estimate that person’s weight. We told them that they would receive a $1 bonus per photo if they came within 10 pounds of the right answer. After completing the initial task, some participants were shown an anxiety-inducing clip from the movie Vertical Limit; the rest watched a “neutral” clip from a National Geographic documentary about fish in the Great Barrier Reef. Next, students rated their self-confidence and then completed another round of weight estimates. But before being shown the photographs again, the students indicated whether they wanted to receive advice from someone else before making their guesses. Those put in an anxious state by the movie clip felt less confident than those who watched the nature documentary. Ninety percent of those in the anxiety condition opted to seek advice; only 72% of those in the neutral state did. Those in the anxious state were also more likely to take the advice they were given.
This might not be a problem — except that anxiety also impairs our ability to accurately judge the quality of the advice we received. In a follow-up to the above experiment, my colleagues and I had another group of participants write about an experience from the past that made them anxious or about their last visit to the grocery store (typically a neutral experience) and then estimate the number of coins in a jar. This time, some participants were given bad advice; others were given good advice (i.e., they received accurate estimates of the number of coins). Those who were in a neutral state were more likely to take advice when it was good rather than bad. But anxious participants tended to make no such distinction. Anxiety reduced their ability to discern between good and bad advice.
These two tendencies — being more receptive to advice and less discriminating — can combine in a way that can be harmful. In fact, in a similar study, we found that people who were made to feel anxious were more open to, and more likely to rely on, advice even when they knew that the person offering it had a conflict of interest — that is, when he or she would benefit financially from the participant taking the advice.
The anxiety we triggered in our experiments was relatively mild. By contrast, the anxiety prompted by high-stake decisions can be so great that it can overwhelm our careful plans and analysis.
Eliminating the emotional turmoil of high-stakes decisions may not be always possible, but there are ways to minimize your likelihood of falling prey to bad advice.
1. Refrain from making major decisions until you are in a relaxed state and can clearly reflect on the matter at hand.
2. Avoid making a quick decision or obsessing over details. Using a metaphor from golfing, rather than focusing on the endless details of the perfect shot — such as the correct club, proper grip, turning your shoulders just so, and so on — it may be more helpful to focus on the more important outcome: where you want the shot to land.