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Science Explains Why People Pass The Buck When Making A Tough Decision

With great power comes great responsibility—which is exactly what many of us try to avoid.

[Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images]

Don’t you hate it when people pass the buck on important decisions? They’re supposed to come up with an answer, and instead they bow out and delegate. But people with this annoying habit might actually be looking out for your best interests as much as they are trying to avoid responsibility.

New research into buck-passing behavior has found that people delegate decisions far more often when that decision affects other people. When we have to make a decision that affects only ourselves, we get on and make it. "People care more about avoiding blame for bad out­comes than get­ting credit for good out­comes," Northeastern University's Mary Steffel, lead author of the study, said in a news release.

The motivation for buck-passing, then, is complex. In part, we delegate decisions because we don’t want the blame for making a bad choice, but we also do it because we might recognize our own shortcomings. "One possible benefit of delegation is that one can put choices in the hands of a more capable decision maker," says Steffel in her paper, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. "Delegation may at times result in a better decision, because someone more knowledgeable ends up determining the outcome."

Flickr user Alexander Lyubavin

Another situation that leads us to delegate decisions is when the options are poor. In one test, Steffel had participants imagine that they had to book a hotel for their boss’s business trip. They were more likely to delegate this task than they were booking a hotel for themselves, but if the hotels available for their bosses were only two-star dives instead of five-star palaces, they were even more likely to pass the buck to somebody else.

"A choice that one makes on behalf of someone else could either go well or it could go poorly," writes Steffel, "and it is anticipating the possibility of the latter outcome that is especially likely to prompt delegation." We tend to be blamed for making a bad decision, even when the choices we have are all terrible, and we couldn’t be expected to do any better.

Often, though, we delegate not only because we fear the repercussions of a bad decision, but because we genuinely want a better outcome. One of Steffel’s experiments offered the participants anonymity. This removed the possibility of blame, but the results showed that they still delegated to avoid poor outcomes, almost as often as they did without anonymity. "Most decision makers are not heartless," writes Steffel. "[Anonymity] only relieves the decision maker of the possibility of blame, not of their own knowledge that they inflicted the outcome on the other person."

When it comes to the act of buck-passing, we have a complex set of principles. Or a lack of them, depending on your point of view. Steffel found that, while we are reluctant just to toss a coin, leaving the decision to chance, we aren’t nearly so fussy when choosing a person to delegate to. In this case, we will pass the buck to anyone who is allowed to take it, whether or not they might actually do a better job than ourselves.

"People only delegate to others who can assume responsibility, regardless of their expertise," says the report, "consistent with the notion that people delegate primarily to cede responsibility and blame, not put choices in the hands of more capable decision makers."

So, to sum up, we’re concerned about doing the right thing and not letting others down, but only because we want to avoid blame or guilty feelings. Which tells us exactly what we knew already: If you want something done properly, do it yourself.

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