We all occasionally find ourselves paralyzed by looming decisions, unable to make up our minds with time running out. I was recently afflicted in just this way—I had no idea what to be for Halloween.
Costume ideas will usually just come to me, allowing enough time to prepare at a leisurely pace. I’d then confidently strut my way through Halloween parties full of friends in hand-sewn outfits with witty pop-culture references.
This year was different, though. My anxiety mounted as the big night approached and I had yet to pick a costume idea (let alone gather and assemble the required supplies). Before I knew it, it was the morning of the 31st and my Halloween-induced stress was at an all-time high. As the resident artist for the lab, my calling card is coming up with creative things.
Hundreds of ideas ran through my head, but everything was too difficult, expensive, or obscure. What to do?!
Fortunately, a friend directed me to a simple website which suggested a different nonsensical costume with each visit. Among the suggestions were ideas as disparate as “smutty rice cooker,” “exotic forklift,” and “immoral waffle.” Just a few quick clicks in and I knew what my Halloween costume would be: “The Salacious Rat King.”
Relief washed over me, and I began to mentally piece together my outfit. I could wear my sheepskin rug as a furry cape! I could make a mask from the box of desperately stale breakfast cereal! Suddenly, I was eager to go home and create my salacious rat king ensemble.
How did I go from immobilized by indecision to optimistic and enthusiastic about dressing up for Halloween in just a couple minutes?
By outsourcing my costume decision-making to a website, I was able to relinquish some responsibility over the outcome, lifting a weight from my shoulders. Instead of continuing to fret all day about my choices, the assistance of the costume-suggester gave me one humorous option at a time.
I no longer had to think, “What in the whole universe should I choose to assume as my identity for the night,” and instead, “am I more rakish ironing board or seductive mastiff?” This simplification of the process may have closed off some great costume options, but my enjoyment of Halloween was markedly increased once I accepted the computer’s suggestion.
In the end, my salacious rat king costume was a great success, and my Halloween was saved thanks to outsourcing my decision.
For more on the process of outsourcing decision making and the influence it has on stress and choice, we recommend this paper by fellow Duke Professor Gráinne Fitzsimons and this emotional TEDx talk by Stanford Professor and friend of the lab Baba Shiv.