• New research looked at whether people might prefer to receive bad news - and why that might be relief.
  • The study suggests that people like to have difficult decisions taken out of their hands.
  • We should seek out more information or advice in order to make these difficult decisions, though, rather than hoping for the worst.

Why would anyone hope for the worst? Research by Serena Hagerty and colleague sheds light on just how far people will go to dodge a tough decision.

Imagine you are experiencing pain in your shoulder, and your doctor says you have torn a tendon. If the tear is big, she says, you will need surgery, whereas, if it’s slightly smaller, surgery is optional. Which size tear would you prefer?

That’s the question that Serena Hagerty, a doctoral student at Harvard Business School, and Kate Barasz, an associate professor at ESADE Business School in Barcelona, asked participants in a recent study. Interestingly, 20 percent of participants wished for the larger, more serious tear.

That’s because Hagerty and Barasz also told them that if the tear was large enough—over 3 centimeters—the need for surgery would be definitive, while if it was smaller, they would have to decide whether to opt for the procedure.

“What we’re really documenting here is a strong aversion to making difficult decisions,” says Hagerty, “where people are willing to put themselves in an objectively worse position to absolve themselves of the choice.”

They would rather just have the decision taken away from them.

Rather than agonize over making a difficult call, they’d “rather just have the decision taken away from them,” Barasz says. In fact, when they gave participants the option of moving a slider to show what size tear they’d like, “if the threshold [for surgery] was 3, people were like, ‘I want 3.1,’” says Barasz. “It’s not like they wanted their arm to fall off. They just wanted a slightly bigger tear to make it an unambiguous decision.”

Hagerty and Barasz’s new paper, “Hoping for the Worst? A Paradoxical Preference for Bad News,” which recently appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research, documents this peculiar preference for worse-case scenarios in a variety of medical situations, but the authors suggest that the findings apply more broadly and across a variety of contexts. People face difficult, potentially life-changing decisions all the time—whether to move to a new city or change careers, for instance—and the study findings show just how paralyzed people can feel when they are at a major crossroads, especially at a time when determining what is the right choice is so difficult.

"Access to seemingly endless information online means you can find information to support the feasibility of any possible option. This may actually make decisions harder, not easier,” Hagerty says.

The desire to avoid tough decisions may impact people’s work-related perceptions, too, the researchers say. For instance, a candidate who applies for two jobs might privately wish to get rejected by one rather than have to choose between two options, notes Barasz, a former assistant professor at HBS.

Or a business leader who must cut costs through layoffs “might have a perverse incentive to allow underperforming employees to keep underperforming because it makes it easier to decide whom to lay off,” Hagerty says.

Let the doctor decide

The idea for the research came from Barasz’s personal experience with needing to decide whether to get prophylactic surgery for a genetic condition. “I was lying in the MRI thinking, ‘I hope they find just the shadow of something suspicious and bad because then the decision won’t be up to me,’” she says. “Afterward, I was like, ‘That’s the craziest, stupidest emotion I’ve ever had.’”

But, evidently, it’s quite common. Case in point: In March 2019, doctors told Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Corey Knebel that it was up to him whether to end his baseball season early to get a partially torn ligament in his elbow repaired. Doctors likely would have recommended surgery for a full tear, but the less serious injury made the procedure his call.

I hope they find just the shadow of something suspicious because then the decision won't be up to me

Knebel ultimately opted for surgery, but said during a press conference that deciding what to do was excruciating. “It sucked that it was my decision. I hated that,” he said. “I really wish the doctor would have just said, ‘Here is what we’re doing.’”

To find out if other players would feel the same way, the researchers surveyed 74 baseball pitchers from universities in the United States and found that about as many participants strongly preferred the full tear to the less significant injury to take the decision out of their hands. One player explained: “I chose this answer because this actually happened to me. I knew something was wrong but didn’t know what and got an MRI, and, after hearing the doc say it was a complete tear, I was relieved.”

The fear of regret

The researchers examined why people felt this way through another set of experiments. During one test involving surgery for appendicitis, for example, they gave people either “better news” in which they would have a choice to have surgery or “worse news” in which the doctor strongly recommended surgery. After the hypothetical procedure was done, they told participants that surgery hadn’t been necessary after all and asked how they felt. Those who had made the choice themselves felt more personally responsible than those who had the decision made for them—a difference of 3.4 versus 4.4 on a seven-point scale.

“The irony here was that in either case you had surgery you didn’t need,” Barasz says, “but the thing that people were most likely to fear was the regret they’d feel afterward.”

Bad news can leave people feeling as though they 'have no other choice,' which itself can be exonerating.

The researchers also found that the more difficult the decision, the more likely people were to prefer the bad news option that took away their personal choice. While previous research has shown that people don’t like making difficult decisions, “to our knowledge, this is the first literature that suggests we’re hoping for the worst before we actually even hear the news,” says Hagerty.

After all, bad news can free us from making the wrong call. “By providing a clear path forward, bad news can leave people feeling as though they ‘have no other choice,’ which itself can be exonerating,” the researchers write.

How to handle tough choices

A last experiment showed just how self-defeating this thinking can be. When participants were given the option to undergo a procedure that could reduce a shoulder tear to the point of avoiding surgery, many preferred to skip the procedure and go through with the surgery anyway. The behavioral implications are significant, the researchers say, in that people might not act in their own best interest at times.

For those who find themselves wrestling with making difficult decisions, rather than hoping for bad outcomes, a better strategy may be finding ways to make the choice easier through gathering more information or seeking counseling. “Part of it is just being aware of the extent that we are averse to difficult decisions,” says Hagerty, “and seeking out things to make them easier, whether through more knowledge or advice.”

Part of it is just being aware of the extent that we are averse to difficult decisions

By reducing the difficulty of decisions, Hagerty and Barasz say, decision-makers can empower themselves to make those choices themselves, rather than hoping for self-defeating bad news to make the choice for them.

“Recognizing the difficulty of decisions and the perverse incentives that can come from them can help reduce this preference for worse news,” says Barasz, “and, ideally, free people to make better choices.”