The Psychology of Indecision (I Feel Cranky)

It’s hazardous to psychoanalyze your family members, obnoxious to psychoanalyze your friends, and downright dubious to psychoanalyze a nation. Nevertheless:

I’ve been thinking about the national mood, which is cranky. In four critical areas we are teetering on the verge of decision: health care, Afghanistan, financial regulation and climate change. All four are extraordinarily complex, all four appear urgent, and as a nation we are finding it very difficult to make up our minds about all four.  For each of these concerns I give at least even odds that we will not reach any decision of consequence in the coming year.  (Of course, not to decide is to decide, but in most of these cases the same issues would then be back with us next year.)

This indecision feels bad. I find myself looking back longingly on our election just slightly more than a year ago, when it seemed that we had made up our mind to something fresh and new. That felt good. Elections, however they turn out, give the sense of decision in a way that Congressional deliberation very rarely does. (It was the Republicans’ turn to feel good in last week’s gubernatorial elections—their turn to feel as though they had accomplished something.)

I relate our current crankiness to the dis-ease I myself feel when I am trying to make up my mind about a personal matter. Whether the decision is big or small, I am restless, crabby, and unproductive. I can’t sit still. I look for distractions. (Bless the internet for providing them, better than TV ever did!) All the alternatives seem bad. I need to spend more time analyzing their flaws. So many unknown aspects could go wrong.

Some people get so overwhelmed that they literally cannot make a decision. But healthier minds usually manage to move ahead. We decide on the Grand Tetons as our vacation destination, we plunk down money to reserve a cabin (lots of unknowns there), we put the dates on our calendar, we begin to get dog sitters and house sitters and all the rest.

And then we feel better. The unknowns remain. So do the imperfections of our choice. But we are in motion. We will work out the problems as we go. We will live with the imperfections.

In all four areas of national choice, we’re stuck in the crabby land of indecision. Added to that, we have a constitution that was deliberately crafted to make decisions difficult. (Thank God it’s not California’s constitution, which was crafted to make us crazy.) Added to that, there’s a partisan spirit in the land that sidetracks deliberation.

Beware of governments making decisions that aren’t thought through. (Remember Iraq?) I’m glad for the deliberative process. I realize that making a decision, any decision, feels better in the short run, but it doesn’t necessarily feel better in the long run.

At some point, though, you know all you are going to know, and it’s time to decide. Will we? Will we decide on a direction for any of these four matters within the next year? I hope so. I want to move on. I want to feel better.

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