We’ve succeeded if we’ve made you unhappy

What if the steps we take to empower stakeholders to be full – and have no doubt about it, supportive – participants in a public involvement process actually just makes them miserable?

Sometimes we entice advisory groups, the public and others to move along within a decision-making process with promises and mechanisms for revisiting decisions previously made. Doing so seems to make some sense; it often eliminates immediate conflict and it appears to build trust by assuring participants that they aren’t buying a pig in a poke.

But research by Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert suggests the opposite. In 2002, he and a colleague discovered that people are generally happier about irrevocable decisions. Once you’re locked in, you quickly move on to ignoring the negative implications and capitalizing on the positive aspects.  

However, his research indicates that if you have the opportunity to rethink your decision, the mental back and forth about both the negative and positive implications leaves you less happy.

Bottom line, would public involvement practitioners be better off being very clear with participants what the decision points are in the stakeholder process and that, once a decision is made, it won’t be revisited absent new, compelling evidence or technical analysis?

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