Delayed Decisions = A Perception Of Doubt (Implications For Mediation?)

By: Donald L Swanson

A 2014 study looks at how people make judgments, based on the time it takes others to reach a decision. [Fn. 1] The central finding of the study is this:

  • Long decision times are viewed as evidence of the decision maker’s doubt; and
  • Others make decisions based on the degree of doubt perceived.

What follows are examples cited in the study.

Job Offers

Here is a common scenario for a job searcher:

  • Job interviews occur at Company A and Company B—both go well, but Company B offers an annual salary that’s $1,000 more than Company A;
  • Company A responds immediately after the interview with a job offer, while Company B waits five days to offer the job;
  • The differing decision times are perceived like this: (i) Company A’s prompt action suggests solid confidence, while (ii) Company B’s relative delay suggests hesitation and doubt; and
  • So, job searcher accepts Company A’s offer, despite its lower salary offer.

Moral Character

In another scenario, two men (acting separately) find a cash filled wallet in a parking lot.  The first immediately returns the wallet to a nearby store, while the second person also decides to return the wallet—but only after a delay.

Participants evaluating the moral character of the two men respond as follows:

  • Although both decide to return the wallet (i.e., the outcome is the same), the delayed choice is perceived as less honest than immediate action; and
  • Delaying the decision to return the wallet is perceived as indicating doubt on what to do—which reflects negatively on perceptions of character.


In another scenario, negotiating buyers are significantly less satisfied with the outcome of negotiations when their first offer is immediately accepted by the seller.

The common understanding of a buyer is that a seller’s acceptance of the first offer, without hesitation, implicitly reveals that the buyer’s first offer was too high.  Buyers in such circumstances commonly feel that they could—and should—have done better. The immediate response suggests the absence of any doubt.

The Voice

The study looks at the TV show, “The Voice.”  It’s a talent show where contestants go through “blind auditions” in which:

  • four celebrity singers listen to contestants in chairs facing backwards, to avoid seeing the contestant;
  • each contestant has 2 minutes to convince one or more coaches to accept him or her in the coach’s team;
  • when a coach is convinced by a contestant’s talent, he or she presses a button which rotates the chair, signifying that the coach wants to work with the contestant; and
  • when more than one coach presses his/her button, the contestant must choose the coach he or she wants to work with.

Consider this scenario.  Contestant enters the stage and starts singing: (i) Coach A is convinced and turns his chair after 10 seconds, and (ii) Coach B is also convinced but takes 90 seconds to turn her chair.

Who will the contestant choose to work with (Coach A or B)?  As predicted, coaches who turned first are more frequently chosen than expected by chance.  The contestants are, (i) motivated to collaborate with a coach who signals the most confidence by prompt action, and (ii) hesitant to choose a coach who signals the least confidence by turning later.

Question: Are contestants who choose the coach that turned first also more likely to succeed in subsequent stages of the competition?

Surprisingly, a large proportion of contestants who choose the first-turning coach are eliminated early in the competition. The reason for this is unclear from the study.  [Editorial Comment: Perhaps its because the fast-acting judge acted too quickly—before having a full understanding of the contestant’s ability.]

Implications for Mediation

During mediation sessions, it’s a good idea for each party to take note of the speed of their own efforts to make decisions and respond to offers.

The speed / delays involved in such efforts will be perceived by the other parties as indicating certainty (from quick action) or doubt (from delays). 


Each party should make a judgment, each time they are called upon to act, on how they want their time-of-decision to be perceived—and then act accordingly.


Footnote 1.  The study is, “Decision Time as Information in Judgment and Choice,” published in Volume 125, Issue 2, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, at 113-122 (November 2014).  Its authors are Philippe Van de Calseyde, Gideon Keren and Marcel Zeelenberg.    

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