Analysis Paralysis

During a recent interview for my thesis, a woman threw the term, analysis paralysis, casually into our conversation. I had never heard the term before, but I instantly identified it as something I had experienced. In fact, analysis paralysis is what ground the work of an organization I was a part of to a halt and the fear of continued analysis paralysis is what brought me to propose my thesis. I have since “googled” the term and found a handy little definition on Wikipedia:

“Analysis Paralysis (or paralysis by analysis) describes an individual or group process when overanalyzing or overthinking a situation can cause forward motion or decision-making to become “paralyzed”, meaning that no solution or course of action is decided upon”

Within the industry of volunteerism, for some volunteers, the realization that the work they do cannot provide an isolated impact of positive outcomes with no risk of unintended harm can be so upsetting it stops the good that is being done. Volunteers or volunteer organizations can become so consumed with fear of causing harm that they cease to do good.

While this helps no one, the opposite of analysis paralysis can do just as much, if not more, harm. I recently attended a conference built for students and faculty who plan to lead international or domestic trips for student volunteers. In one workshop we were directed to consider three boxes labeled “unintended harm,” “no harm,” and “positive impact.” We were directed to provide examples of each to further illustrate what was meant by these boxes. At no point was there a discussion of the possibility that student volunteers visiting a community or organization to provide short term work could cause both a positive impact and unintended harm. It could be argued that any action in any sphere or work can and will cause unintended harm, especially if overly problematized within the context of analysis paralysis. But this harm is only amplified when those who are most likely to be impacted by it are populations that are already vulnerable, i.e. the community partners student’s work with when volunteering. The last thing these organizations want to do is put the communities they work with at even further disadvantage. But by ignoring the possibility to harm, these organizations are only making it more likely to occur.

The best solution would be to find a happy medium between the analysis paralysis and the bliss of ignorance. Harm reduction, while it may sound pessimistic, is the best way to move forward. Through the work on my thesis, I have identified a few key areas on how to reduce harm.

  • Long term over short term service
  • Greater focus on training volunteers
  • Horizontalism and mutual respect over mutual benefit/impact
  • Number of volunteers dictated by community partner
  • Timing of service dictated by community partner rather than the student’s breaks in school

I plan to continue exploring these areas throughout my research and to expand upon them in the work of my thesis.


  1. mfarrhenderson says:

    Thank you very much! With your suggestion, I will look into effective altruism.

  2. lhcampopiano says:

    I’m very interested in your discussion of the difficulty in striking a balance between due diligence and administrative dysfunction. I agree that too often people volunteer with good intentions and feel that this is sufficient to qualify as doing actual good in the world. This brings to my mind the movement in philosophy called effective altruism, which is focused on measuring empirically the benefit that various charities provide to ascertain if their funds are being spent wisely. Of course, this can be a double edged sword, because if you spend all of your time trying to decide where to volunteer (or donate), you’ll never end up helping anyone. This seems to be a significant theoretical problem for charity/volunteering and for utilitarian calculation more broadly, but, in practice, I think that your suggestions can provide a reasonable and justified middle ground.

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