Why is it easier to see the best solution to other people’s dilemmas than our own? Whether it’s about someone deciding to pursue a new job, or ask for a raise, or someone simply mulling over which ice cream flavor to choose, we seem to see the best solution with a clarity and decisiveness that is often absent when we face our own quandaries.
People have a different mindset when choosing for others: an adventurous mindset that stands in contrast to the more cautious mindset that rears when people make their own choices. In my research with Yi Liu and Yongfang Liu of East China Normal University in China and Jiangli Jiao of Xinjiang Normal University in China, we looked at how people make decisions for themselves and for others. We were interested in the process and quantity of information a decision maker uses when choosing for others versus choosing for the self. We wanted to know: Is more information searched in the process when people choose for others versus for themselves, and does the way they evaluate that information change based on whom they are choosing for?
To test our hypotheses, we performed eight studies with over a thousand participants. Throughout the series of randomized tests, participants were given a list of restaurants, or job options, or dating profiles — each with detailed information and then participants were asked to make choices for themselves or for someone else based on that information.
What we found was two-fold: Not only did participants choose differently when it was for themselves rather than for someone else, but the way they chose was different. When choosing for themselves, participants focused more on a granular level, zeroing in on the minutiae, something we described in our research as a cautious mindset. Employing a cautious mindset when making a choice means being more reserved, deliberate, and risk averse. Rather than exploring and collecting a plethora of options, the cautious mindset prefers to consider a few at a time on a deeper level, examining a cross-section of the larger whole.
But when it came to deciding for others, study participants looked more at the array of options and focused on their overall impression. They were bolder, operating from what we called an adventurous mindset. An adventurous mindset prioritizes novelty over a deeper dive into what those options actually consist of; the availability of numerous choices is more appealing than their viability. Simply put, they preferred and examined more information before making a choice, and as my previous research has shown, they recommended their choice to others with more gusto.
These findings align with my earlier work with Kyle Emich of University of Delaware on how people are more creative on behalf of others. When we are brainstorming ideas to other people’s problems, we’re inspired; we have a free flow of ideas to spread out on the table without judgment, second-guessing, or overthinking.
Upon reflection, these results should feel familiar. Think about the most recent time you asked for a raise. Many people are initially afraid to ask (employing a cautious mindset); however, these same people are often very supportive in recommending to others (such as their friends or colleagues) that they ask (employing an adventurous mindset). When people recommend what others should do, they come up with ideas and choices and solutions that are more optimistic and action-oriented, focus on more positive information and imagine more favorable consequences. Meanwhile, when making their own choices, people tend to envision everything that could go wrong, leading to doubt and second-guesses.
How can this research be applied? First, we believe that it suggests that everyone should have a mentor, or a blunt friend who can help people see and act on better evidence.
We should also work to distance ourselves from our own problems by adopting a fly-on-the-wall perspective. In this mindset, we can act as our own advisors—indeed, it may even be effective to refer to yourself in the third-person when considering an important decision as though you’re addressing someone else. Instead of asking yourself, “what should I do?” ask yourself “what should you do?”.
Another distancing technique is to pretend that your decision is someone else’s and visualize it from his or her perspective. This can be very easy when thinking of famous exemplars, such as how Steve Jobs would make your decision. By imagining how someone else would tackle your problem, people may unwittingly help themselves.
Perhaps the easiest solution is to let others make our decisions for us. By outsourcing our choices, we can take advantage of a growing market of firms and apps that make it increasingly easier for people to “pitch” their decisions to others. For example, people can have their clothes, food, books, or home decor options chosen for them by others.
Our research underscores a basic human desire: we want to feel like we’ve made a difference. We are wired for connection with others and an interesting part of making decisions for other people is that it is possible to have a bigger impact. Since managers and leaders are tasked with making decisions for others on multiple levels—everything from daily minutiae to personnel conflicts to long-term strategic planning—our results point the way to helping these employees find greater degrees of creativity, effectiveness, and fulfillment in their work.
Evan Polman is an assistant professor of marketing and the Cynthia and Jay Ihlenfeld Professor for Inspired Learning in Business at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.