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Want to Lose Friends? Make Tough Choices

A new study finds people forced to decide between two unpalatable choices are judged harshly, no matter which option they pick.
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Whether they are Democrats or Republicans, our elected representatives are extremely reluctant to make tough choices. Facing tough issues such as health care reform, in which every alternative requires some sort of sacrifice, they are paralyzed into inaction, fearful they'll be scorned by their constituents no matter which way they vote.

Newly published suggests they're absolutely right.

When a decision-maker is forced to choose between two bad options, he or she tends to be judged harshly. That's the conclusion of "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," a paper just published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

A research team led by Justin Kruger, an associate professor of marketing at New York University, conducted two experiments featuring lose-lose scenarios. In the first, participants read a summary of a real-life court case in which a judge decided which of two clearly unfit parents should be awarded custody of a child.

Some of the college students participating in the study were informed of the actual outcome, while others were told the losing parent was given custody. All were then asked to evaluate both the judge and his decision.

"When told (correctly) that the judge awarded custody to Parent A, participants tended to think that this was a bad decision," the researchers write. "However, this was also the case when they were told the judge picked Parent B.

"These evaluations of the decision appeared to trickle down to the evaluations of the decision-maker," they add. "Participants evaluated the judge negatively when they thought he awarded custody to Parent A, but so too did participants who thought he did the opposite."

For the second experiment, the participants were told they had to wear a sandwich-board sign with a repugnant message — either "Long Live Osama" or "Free Saddam." (The experiment was conducted before Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's 2006 execution.) The specific sign they wore was picked at random, but they were told it was chosen by a team partner.

As in Experiment One, participants thought the decision-maker made a poor decision no matter which sign he or she purportedly chose. Oddly, this feeling was consistent in spite of the fact the participants found the "Osama" sign slightly less offensive than the "Saddam" sign. Even if they got to wear the marginally less heinous message, they still felt their partner made a poor decision.

Why do we evaluate decision-makers so negatively, even when we understand they have no good options? The researchers offer several possible explanations. Perhaps people project their dissatisfaction with the unhappy outcome onto the decision-maker. "If so, then merely prompting participants to consider the true source of their dissatisfaction — the outcome — should attenuate that derision," they write.

Needless to say, the key word in that sentence is "should."

"Recent research suggests that when people evaluate the decision of A over B, they focus on the features of A more than the features of B," the researchers add. "As a result, if A is evaluated negatively, the decision and decision-maker may be evaluated negatively as well — even if B is just as negative, if not more."

In other words, once the decision is made, we focus on what we like and dislike about it, rather than recalling the alternative was even worse.

Given this tendency, can we blame our congressmen for acting cowardly? We apparently want our decision-makers to be magicians, and when they fail to come up with miraculous solutions to perplexing problems, we consider them failures. Harry Truman is revered for facing up to the fact "The buck stops here," but for less-pugnacious politicians, the safest path is to take a pass.

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