At the risk of sounding like a bit of a nut, I must confess that I have a longstanding aversion to socks. It’s not a phobia – I just don’t like having to keep my little toes wrapped up in what’s basically a sweater, when they’d be so much happier in a tank top.
So as soon as the temperature hits 55°F, out come my trusty flip-flops, and – much to the consternation of my wife – I happily wander around the city pretty much socks-free until Fall rolls around and the temperature dips back under 55°F.
But having experienced some recent knee issues, my doctor noted that I might need to invest in some “motion control” shoes to help manage the overpronation of my flat feet. So I started Googling about this the other day, studying various “top 10” motion control shoe lists, expert reviews, user reviews, etc.
I certainly learned a lot, but paradoxically, the more I read, the more I felt I needed to know in order to make the “right” decision. It’s as if the more time I spent online, the further away I got from making a decision.
Indeed, I ended up not making a decision that day. Heck, I still haven’t decided what shoes to get.
Apparently, this is a pretty common phenomenon known as analysis paralysis.
And it can happen with decisions big and small. Like choosing which grad school to go to. Or deciding which fingering to use in next week’s audition. Or whether to get Taco Bell’s XXL Grilled Stuft Burrito or the Nachos Bell Grande for lunch (hint: Taco Bell is awesome, but the answer is no).
Because the reality is that decisions are often not so clear-cut.
In a musical context, for instance, one fingering might be much more compelling musically – but more challenging and riskier technically. Another might be safer, but involve a string crossing that sounds a bit odd in context.
So when faced with decisions that have no clear “correct” answer, we can sometimes get stuck in the information-gathering phase, seeking out more and more information – and needlessly prolonging the decision-making process.
Or sometimes, not making any decision at all! Which, when it comes to musical decisions – whether it’s how to phrase a particular run or how to roll chords in Bach – could lead to a pretty generic performance.
So is there a way to overcome this analysis paralysis and make decisions in a more timely way?
“Random” decision aids?
A team of Swiss researchers (Douneva, Jaffé, & Greifeneder, 2019), conducted a series of experiments to see if “random decision aids” could help accelerate the decision-making process.
And what are “random decision aids,” exactly?
In this case, coin flips, believe it or not.
I know, you’re probably thinking that sure, flipping a coin might be an acceptable way to decide between Taco Bell’s Volcano Quesarito or Volcano Nachos (hint: the answer is still no)…but wouldn’t this be pretty inappropriate for more important decisions like whether to end a relationship, transfer to a different school, or quit a job?
The researchers suggest that coin flipping can be useful in big decisions as well, explaining that flipping a coin doesn’t necessarily lead people to do what the coin suggests. It’s more that the coin flip helps to clarify what you’ve already decided, and are probably going to end up doing anyway.
And that it provides some “choice closure,” helping you feel like you can stop spinning your wheels in the information-gathering stage, and just make a decision already.
Which makes sense in theory, but is there any evidence that this is true? That coin flipping actually helps us avoid analysis paralysis by reducing our need for too much information?
In one of the studies, 170 participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups, and asked to read a vignette about a store manager who was up for a contract renewal.
They were then tasked with making a preliminary decision about whether that manager’s contract should be extended or not – but told that this was just a preliminary decision. That there would be more information available, and they could change their minds later if they wanted.
A coin flip
Then, two of the groups were told that because some folks find this to be a difficult decision, they could flip a coin to help with their decision-making. These folks then got to do a virtual coin flip on the computer, which either recommended that they go ahead with their initial decision (coin-congruent group), or turned up suggesting that they do the opposite of their initial decision (coin-incongruent group). And in the meantime, the third group saw a rotating hourglass and waited for the next part of the study (control group).
Who wants more info?
Everyone was then asked if they wanted any additional information before making a final decision.
If they said no, they were then asked for their final decision.
If, however, they said yes, they were given an opportunity to get more information (i.e. in the form of “search results” from a Google-like search). But eventually, they too were asked to make a final decision.
So the big question was…what effect did the coin flip have on information-seeking behavior? Did flipping a coin make it more likely for participants to stick with their initial decision and pass on the opportunity for more information?
Or did they experience a bit of analysis paralysis and ask for more information before making a final decision?
Well, it was pretty much as the researchers expected.
On average, coin flippers were much less likely to request additional information than those in the control group who didn’t get a coin flip. Three times less likely, in fact.
And it actually didn’t matter which way the coin flipped. If anything, a coin flip that recommended the opposite of their original decision made them more certain of their initial choice and even less inclined to request more information.
Which suggests that it probably isn’t so important which way the coin lands. And that it’s more the act of flipping a coin and gauging our reaction to it, that helps us gain clarity.
Making a choice, and doing 200%
I think it’s safe to assume that the researchers didn’t have fingerings, bowings, stickings, pedaling, voicing, phrasing, articulation, dynamics, and the gamut of other musical and technical decisions in mind when designing these studies.
But I think it’s a strategy that might be useful nonetheless, as it reminded me of something I heard violinist Sylvia Rosenberg once say in a coaching.
Essentially, she urged the musicians to make clearer choices, and then do 200% of whatever it was that they decided.
To really commit to making a forte sound like a forte and not something vaguely between a mezzo-forte and a forte. To make an accent really sound like an accent, not some quasi-sforzando-accent-dot-hybrid sort of thing.
She acknowledged that she wouldn’t always agree with their choices, but noted that if she could hear that a choice had been made, at least they could have a conversation about it. Whereas if she couldn’t hear what they had decided, it’d be difficult to have a dialogue, and hard not to assume that they simply hadn’t explored or studied the piece well enough.
So the next time you encounter a difficult choice about something musical or technical (or both) in something you’re working on, see what happens if you make a preliminary decision, and then flip a coin – as if you had to do whatever it is that the coin told you to do.
Then do a little internal reflection. Do you feel at peace with what the coin suggests? Or do you wish the coin had landed the other way? See if this helps to clarify which way you were already leaning, and make it easier to commit to one or the other and move on without getting paralyzed.
After all, you’re going to continue to evolve and grow as a musician with each passing day. So any decision you make now is probably not permanent anyway, as you may very well choose differently when you return to the piece a year, 5 years, or 20 years later…
Douneva, M., Jaffé, M. E., & Greifeneder, R. (2019). Toss and turn or toss and stop? A coin flip reduces the need for information in decision-making. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 83, 132–141.