A Study on Delegating Responsibility for Important Decisions: Application to Mediation?

Delegating responsibility? (photo by Marilyn Swanson)

By: Donald L. Swanson

Consumers often delegate the responsibility for making difficult decisions to others.

This is the finding of a recent study by two college professors [Fn. 1].

Avoiding Regret v. Avoiding Disappointment

The study distinguishes between a consumer’s desire to avoid “regret” and to avoid “disappointment.” While both regret and disappointment “capture a person’s reaction to having made a bad choice,” the difference is this:

  • “people feel disappointment” when their choices don’t turn out as well as they had hoped; but
  • they “feel regret” when they are responsible for “a less than optimal outcome.”

It’s the “feeling of responsibility,” the professors explain, that “determines one’s emotional reaction to a decision”—not “the act of choosing,”

Put another way, “when a decision is difficult” and the best choice “is unclear,” decision makers “worry about feeling responsible for the outcome of the choice.” Since they might “regret their role” in making the decision, they like “delegating” responsibility for the choice to someone else.

Role of Expertise

And get this variation. The two professors find that, (i) delegation of a decision to an expert makes sense, but (ii) “the tendency to delegate difficult decisions is not predicated on expertise.” That’s because, people delegate difficult decisions to “avoid responsibility,” not to gain “better insight.”

An Example

The findings of the two professors ring true. Here’s an example.

Back in the first decade of my career, I’m representing a family business in pre-bankruptcy negotiations with the primary creditor. We are at a critical stage of the negotiations, and an important decision needs to be made. There are many variables and alternatives, and the future is unknown.

My client and I spend hours discussing the situation. And I come to realize that my client can’t make a decision.

Keep in mind that I’m a young attorney, back then, with limited experience, lacking expertise on the subject at hand, and more-than-a-little scared about what might result from a bad decision. And, I realize, there may be no such thing as a good decision here.

After getting nowhere toward a decision, I finally say: “So, here’s what I recommend . . . “

Whereupon, my client says, “Ok. We’ll do that.”

The response startled me: (i) the issue at hand is about business—not about the law, (ii) the client has greater experience than me on such matters—by far, yet (iii) the client had delegated to me the responsibility for making the decision.

I’ve often puzzled, since then, over what happened. I’ve figured there has to be some kind of hard-knocks rule about human nature to be gleaned from that situation. But I’ve never come up with a satisfactory explanation . . . until reading the study by these two professors.

Their study perfectly explains what happened between my client and me, those many years ago:

  • my client was paralyzed by fear of regret over making a bad decision, so he delegated responsibility for making the decision to me—someone who had little-to-no experience or expertise on the matter; and
  • he was happy when the decision was finally made.

Application for Mediation?

Surely there are applications from the professors’ findings for mediation. What might those be? Any suggestions?


Here’s a big “thank you” to professors Mary Steffel and Elanor F. Williams for the insights they’ve provided!

Footnote 1: The two professors are (i) Mary Steffel, assistant professor of marketing at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University of Boston, MA 02115, and (ii) Elanor F. Williams, assistant professor of marketing at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University of Bloomington, IN. Their study is titled, “Delegating Decisions: Recruiting Others to Make Choices We Might Regret,” and is published at Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 44, Issue 5, February 2018, at 1015-1032.

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