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Life’s a box of chocolates: When smart students can’t make decisions

| Thursday, January 27, 2022

Imagine it didn’t matter whether you took AP Spanish or AP German — you knew you’d graduate somewhere near the top of your class. It didn’t matter whether you started a paper seven days before the due date, five days, or the night before — you knew you could get an A. It was never a life-or-death matter whether you chose Notre Dame or Dartmouth, economics or finance. You knew no matter which one you chose, you could get a job after graduation paying at least the average income of an American adult, likely almost twice that amount. You knew that you could stay up past midnight every weeknight doing homework and still function, so there was no reason to decide to go to bed early. You knew you went to a school — or came from a family — with a robust and helpful network, so you didn’t send out hundreds of carefully curated cold emails to build connections outside of it.

If this sounds familiar, you may have unconsciously learned that many, even most of your decisions, didn’t matter much to your success, survival or overall happiness. You may have even been explicitly told this, by well-meaning people saying, “No matter what you do, you’ll be successful.” Believing this to some degree, you may not have invested as much time or energy in decision-making as others. This is the reality of many of the smart, relatively privileged kids who attend universities like ours.

And in fact, if this column resonates with you, I’m willing to bet at least some decisions you’ve made were “non-decisions.” Perhaps some entity, like a school or a parent, made some of the tough decisions for you. For example, you may have gone to a school that required every student to become proficient in an instrument, or learn another language, or sign up for study prep for the SAT. You may have been told to take a certain course of study or language by authority figures in your life. You may have avoided decisions that narrowed your set of choices because you wanted to “keep all options on the table.”

Instead of doing the cognitive work it takes to parse out which decisions are really best for us, we take shortcuts. There’s not anything wrong with this, prima facie. Decision-making is very time-intensive, and sometimes trusted others have access to better information than we do. But making a lifelong habit of “training-wheel” decision-making, or decision avoidance, can cripple our decision-making abilities when we are faced with unfamiliar situations alone.

Smart kids are encouraged to maximize their set of future options, and then choose the best option from among them. A “Study Everything, Do Anything” approach encourages students to keep the choice set of careers, classes, majors, internships and life paths as large as possible at all times.

This makes things even worse. Faced with too many possible paths, the human brain experiences “choice paralysis” or “overchoice,” something many young people struggle with in their college years. In situations of overchoice, we often procrastinate making a decision, and experience more dissatisfaction and regret toward our choices once we do make a decision. We may avoid making decisions at all. Take, for example, the famous “Jam Experiment” by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper in 2000. In the study, some shoppers were given a choice between 24 different jams to sample and purchase, others were randomized into a group that was given a choice between just six different jam varieties. Participants in the 24-variety group were significantly less likely to buy jam than those in the six-variety group. Similar experimental results were replicated with chocolates in a box. Valentine’s Day gifters, beware.

Why does the crisis of decision-making among highly educated young people matter? Students from universities like Notre Dame become future leaders in politics, business, nonprofits, the arts and academia. A lack of skill in decision-making processes by a politician or a CEO has real-life consequences for people other than oneself. People who don’t understand how to make good decisions may make tough decisions flippantly or impulsively.

So, what can students do? I’ll explore more actionable steps in a future column, but a hint here, from Notre Dame economics professor Joe Kaboski (quoted with his permission!) who once advised me on decision-making in my first year:

“The big temptation of young people today, especially ND undergrads who have so many opportunities, is to be paralyzed by all the options, and — interested in many things — to be afraid of letting any of the things they enjoy slip by… it seems like that makes them the most free, keeps all their career doors and interests open. But it actually, and ironically, prevents them from ever having the truly meaningful experiences that take commitment. Most things worthy of your time take real commitment and dedication.”

Professor Kaboski compared finding a meaningful career and finding a life partner, saying that marriage or long-term partnership “requires saying no to all the other people in the world. You may get to know these people well enough and you may have a great variety of experiences with people, but you’ve never had the experience that matters most: giving yourself fully to another person for life and having the other person share his/her life fully with you.”

Maybe that’s what it takes: Refusing to be fooled by the prospect of having everything. Studying Something, Doing Something that Matters.


Renee Yaseen is a senior Economics major with minors in Theology and PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). In her free time, she writes poems, hangs out with loved ones and ponders the view from her undisclosed study spot in [redacted] Hall. Please send all comments, diatribes and warm fuzzies to [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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