Coping with Decisional Conflict

Irving L. Janis and Leon Mann, in American Scientist 64, Nov–Dec 1976
Read November 2010

In this paper, Janis and Mann present a (then) new theory of how people process information related to decision-making. In their research, they found that people’s information preferences are not the same in all circumstances. Instead, information preferences when making decisions depend on how a person copes with a challenging, stressful, or serious decision. Janis and Mann’s research added a new dimension to the commonly-accepted and still popular theory of cognitive dissonance, which broadly states that people will avoid information that conflicts with their beliefs.

Janis and Mann outline five patterns of coping with stressful decisions:

  • Unconflicted adherence: the person ignores the decision
  • Unconflicted change to the new, recommended course of action, without questioning the decision
  • Defensive avoidance: procrastinating, shifting responsibility, wishful thinking, etc.
  • Hypervigilance, or “panic mode”. The decision-maker “searches frantically for a way out of the dilemma and impulsively seizes upon a hastily contrived solution that seems to promise immediate relief, overlooking the full range of consequences of his choice” (658).
  • Vigilance: searching carefully for relevant information, remaining unbiased when searching, and evaluating the alternatives carefully before making a decision (658). Vigilance is the preferred mode and should lead to high-quality decisions.

The authors believe, based on research experiments, that each particular pattern leads to a different way of processing information. For example, both unconflicted adherence and unconflicted change lead to a low interest in information about the issue, whether pro or con. Defensive avoidance will lead to selective exposure to information that affirms the decision-maker’s choice—this fits with cognitive dissonance theory. Hypervigilance will lead to high interest in all information, even if it is irrelevant. Vigilance, however, should lead decision-makers to consider relevant information on both sides of the issue. That is,

“when the conditions that favor vigilance are present, decision-makers will be open-minded in exposing themselves to information after (as well as before) they make a choice” (662).

This, the authors argue,

“calls into question the well-known selective-exposure hypothesis, which maintains that after making a decision people are motivated primarily to try to reduce cognitive inconsistency, or dissonance, by seeking information that supports their choice” (661).

There are two points about this article which are particularly relevant to my thesis project. First, according to the author’s theory, a reaction of defensive avoidance in my audience would be a problem, because this pattern means that

“the person will actively resist new information about risks in an effort to avoid reactivating the psychological stress aroused by the conflict” (663).

My hypothesis, based on my research and other literature, is that feelings of guilt could easily lead to defensive avoidance. Instead, I want my audience to be in vigilance mode.
The second interesting takeaway is Janis and Mann’s belief that moderate stress is actually helpful for the decision-maker—too little stress, and the person won’t pay attention to the decision or any information because they either react with unconflicted adherence or unconflicted change. Too much stress, though, and they will cope via defensive avoidance or hypervigilance.

But if the decision-maker believes that a satisfactory solution to a serious problem can be found in a timely manner, people will display vigilant attention. This means they “will be open-minded to both supportive and opposing messages” (66). Therefore, a communication that informs an audience about an environmental issue should present the problem so that viewers are concerned, but at the same time provide reassurance that viable solutions exist. This is a fine balance to achieve, and how designers can strike this balance is worth exploring. I hope to probe a bit deeper into this balance through my next thesis prototype.

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