The feeling when you have to do something, but there is more than one course of action to choose from. You don’t know which option you should choose.

You feel doubt when you have to make a decision about something, but you don’t know what the best course of action is. For example, when you have to choose which of two employees you should fire, when you have to choose whether you finish your work in time or go to a birthday party, or when you doubt whether or not to confess something bad you have done. The word ‘doubt’ can refer to the cognitive process, as well as the negative emotion it sometimes involves. If someone is trying to decide whether they feel like having peanut butter or jelly on their toast, they are engaged in doubt, but probably not experiencing a negative emotion. The negative emotion is evoked when there are possible negative consequences involved: you have to choose between two or more options, and each of them could lead to a bad outcome.

Doubt can involve two types of uncertainty. First of all, it always involves an inherent uncertainty about which option is preferable. The person who doubts finishing her work or attending a birthday party has to weigh the costs and benefits of both. Secondly, there may be uncertainty within one (or both) of the choice options. For example, a person can doubt between a lesser, but known evil (e.g., spend money to fix a broken house window) and a worse evil with an uncertain probability (e.g., risking a burglary).

There are several factors that influence how strongly doubt is experienced. The first factor is the gravity of the consequences of the choice. A decision that may ruin your career weighs much heavier than a decision that may only ruin your day. The second factor is the closeness of the options in terms of their appeal: If two options seem equally bad or risky, it becomes much harder to choose between them, prolonging the decision process and the doubt experience.

Doubt is often investigated in consumer psychology, for which consumers are asked to choose between different products to see how their decision process works. Such tests reveal that there is a certain optimum amount of choices. If people have too few choices, they often feel that there is no right option for them. However, there can also be too many choices, in which case it is too much effort to compare all options, and people simply avoid making a decision altogether1.

In the comic, Murphy has to choose which of two jobs he accepts. This is not a frivolous task, as both jobs have different benefits and, more importantly, drawbacks. The fact that his boss insists that he decides instantly is not helping.

Movie clips


Typical expressions

“Ehm… I think I will go for…”

“What should I chose?”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Doubt & Nervousness

Doubt and nervousness are both fears in the context of action: you have to do something but something may go wrong. For example, a company manager may be both nervous and in doubt when he has to make an important decision about the company’s future in very little time. However, not all cases of action involve decision: when you are studying for a difficult test you may feel nervous, but not in doubt. Nervousness, on the other hand, involves uncertainty about an outcome and a lack of control over the situation, which is not necessary to feel doubt. For example, someone may doubt between doing either of two projects, and know exactly what the pros and cons of both are.

Doubt & Confusion

Confusion and doubt are often mentioned together, and do often co-occur. For example, imagine you are at the first day of your new job, and you haven’t been instructed what to do yet. You may feel confused about what is going on, and in doubt what you should do. But this already shows the difference between the two: confusion is about information, doubt is about decisions. When your inability to make a decision is caused by a lack or mismatch of information, you likely feel both doubt and confusion. However, you can also feel doubt without confusion when the possible choices are quite clear. For example, when you have to choose between refilling the parking meter and running the risk to get a ticket, you are in doubt, but not confused about anything. Similarly, you can feel confused without doubt when you don’t understand information, but there is no choice involved. For example, when you are trying to follow the explanation of a complicated math problem.

Sources and further reading