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The psychology of bad decision making: How to stop choosing the wrong thing

Varun woke up to the sound of his ringing alarm. “Oh no!” he panicked. He had an exam to write in less than an hour and he was not at all prepared. “Leaving things for the last minute was a mistake,” he realised, guiltily remembering the times he had bunked classes just to hang out with his friends. Even last night he had gone to a movie-hall when he knew he should have been home studying. “I will not repeat this,” he resolved.

How many of us can relate to Varun’s story? Most of us, I’m sure. Some of us would even be able to assert (and, perhaps, rightly so) that next semester also, the story would be no different for Varun. It’s not that Varun is not capable of learning — it’s just that what Varun committed wasn’t a "mistake". It was actually a "bad decision" that he made.

A "mistake" would have been missing out on a question in one’s rush to complete the paper. It would have happened without the person’s awareness. Not studying for the test, however, was an intentional decision made without regard for the consequences; it was made with conscious awareness. Thus, it was a "bad decision" or bad decision making.

 The psychology of bad decision making: How to stop choosing the wrong thing

We use the terms 'bad decision' and 'mistake' as synonyms, but they are not. Image from SXC

When we re-classify a bad decision as a mistake, we are giving ourselves the opportunity to go easy. Mistakes happen — they aren’t anybody’s fault. Dismissing the bad decisions we take as mistakes stops us from becoming responsible for our actions. We are able to live with ourselves free of guilt, and we don’t accept the blame. Inevitably, we are programming ourselves to keep making the same bad decision again and again. Therefore, the first step towards stopping the process of making decisions that are not good for us, is to stop terming the "bad decision" as a "mistake".

Most of the bad decisions we make involve an immediate reward — in Varun’s case, entertainment and fun. Like Varun, all of us prefer a desirable outcome to happen sooner rather than later (McClure et al 2007). This is why we have that piece of rich chocolate cake even though we are on a diet, or gulp down that extra glass of whisky even though we are aware that we have to drive home. We are all aware that we may have to pay a heavy price later, but we choose to live in the moment.

This "carpe diem" philosophy works even stronger when punishment is not a sure thing. For instance, the probability of getting pulled over by the cops isn’t very high — hence, one may make the bad decision of indulging in a few extra drinks on more than one occasion. Similarly, there may be no immediate opportunity for one to showcase how fit they have become; therefore, making it easier to succumb to bits of temptation time and again. This explains why over seventy percent of women succeed in losing weight just before their wedding (Neighbors et al, 2008) but all of them are not able to maintain the loss after marriage (Prichard, 2014).

Not all of us give in to our immediate urges. According to research, impulsive people dislike waiting, so they choose instantaneous rewards. Further research in this area on people with low impulsivity showed (though fMri reports) that these people are able to delay gratification because they can imagine the future upon receiving the reward later (Jimura et. al., 2013). This is a useful finding because it means that all of us can break the vicious cycle of repeatedly making bad decisions if we are only able to develop the mind-set that it is worth waiting for the future. It also helps if we can trick our brain into thinking that the future isn’t really too far away!

For example, Prerna wants to re-decorate her house. She realises that if she puts aside a certain amount of money, in a span of ten months, she will have enough to fulfill her wish. There is, however, a small problem. Prerna loves using her credit card. She uses it to splurge on clothes, bags, shoes, and she even pays the total tab when the lunch bill arrives on an afternoon out with friends. Of course she pockets her friends' share of the amount, but that money gets used when she is picking up groceries. Every month, Prerna’s credit card bill skyrockets and Prerna soon realises she will not have any money to re-do her home interiors. But can Prerna just stop using her credit card? Will she be able to consistently resist giving in to temptation? She could leave it at home and every morning, on her way to work, withdraw only the amount she needs to get through the day. It is a simple solution — but will she be able to do it consistently for a period of ten months?

Prerna could re-visit her dream of re-decorating her house and try breaking it up into segments. She could start with one small room (which requires the least amount of investment in terms of time and money) and then move on to other areas. It would probably take her less than two weeks to re-do the small portion and seeing her dream slowly turning into a reality would boost her will-power, motivating her to continue keeping in check her urge to spend thoughtlessly.

Old habits die hard. Each time we break a ‘New Year Resolution’, we give up because we feel that we can’t do it. Cultivating good habits takes time. We should be more patient. It’s all right if you drank a glass of wine even though you had resolved to stay off alcohol. One failed attempt does not give you the licence to give up on the new path that you had chosen to walk. Be practical. When setting goals, avoid making “always” or “never” statements: use “more” or “less”. Instead of saying “I will never bunk classes”, resolve to attend more lectures than before and keep count. Just a simple re-framing can make all the difference.

And always remember the big picture. Perhaps, sticking a picture of the reward you seek on your refrigerator or your soft-board will help you stay more focused.

We may have chosen to focus on the short-term benefits all our lives up to now. But remember, it’s never too late to change. Are you ready to make the right decision?

The writer is a counsellor and psychotherapist — but NOT a mind-reader

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Updated Date: Apr 10, 2016 10:06:57 IST