The Wilson Quarterly

Eleanor Roosevelt knew from personal experience what it was like to be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. “Do what you feel in your heart to be right,” she said, for “you’ll be criticized anyway.” New research suggests she had it right. Elected officials cannot win when they have to choose between bad alternatives.

Given a choice between awarding child custody to either of two equally rotten parents, a judge takes heat no matter what the decision, according to a study conducted by Justin Kruger and Laura M. Kressel of New York University and Jeremy Burrus of Columbia. After students read a summary of a court case in which a judge, who ostensibly had no other choice, awarded custody to the parent who appeared to be the lesser evil, one group was informed of the actual outcome and the other was told the losing parent had won.

In both cases, the students evaluated the judge negatively. Their disapproval of the parents seemed to “trickle down to the evaluations of the decision maker,” according to Tom Jacobs, a staff writer for Miller-McCune. In a second experiment, participants were told they had to wear a signboard with an offensive slogan: “Long Live Osama” or “Free Saddam.” (This was before Saddam Hussein was executed.) Their partner on the team, they were told, had decided which of the two slogans they would wear. Participants thought their partner had made a bad decision no matter which sign was picked (though they considered the Osama slogan slightly less repugnant).

Sometimes, the researchers say, no alternative is desirable, and in these instances decision makers absorb the opprobrium. The team noted that a plausible explanation is “focalism.” People focus on the (negative) features of the decision that was made rather than the even worse attributes of the alternative.

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The Source: " Want to Lose Friends? Make Tough Choices" by Tom Jacobs, in Miller-McCune News Blog, July 23, 2009. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Mark McLaughlin

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