Why We Make Decisions We Know We’ll Regret

The science behind our regrets explained.
June 14, 2018, 12:39am

This article is supported by the NSW Government, who want to help empower you to quit smoking. In this article, we look at the psychology behind decision-making.

We all make bad decisions: spending our savings, procrastinating, dating the ‘wrong’ people. And smoking. The instant gratification of lighting up a ciggie is usually pretty quickly replaced with a bit of a gross, regretful feeling. We all know smoking is bad, and makes us feel bad, so why do we keep doing it? First we have to understand how our brain works when it’s presented with a choice. Your brain gathers information (A), processes the information (B), and spits out an answer (C). A+B=C. It seems simple, right? Thanks to the complexities of the human brain, there’s a lot that can go wrong in this seemingly straightforward equation.

Some bad decisions come from having wrong information, or a lack of information. Seems simple, but the information our brains use to make decisions isn’t just based on objective, factual data. Instead, our brains bring up a slew of personal, experiential information—what we’ve learned from previous choices, circumstances, relationships, and other people. Essentially, everything we’ve ever experienced plays into every single decision we make. So no matter how good your information is, or how much of it you’ve got, you can be shockingly bad at using it in practice.

The brain then has to process and prioritise all this information, both objective and subjective. This is what’s referred to as your cognitive ability, and it’s also influenced by countless factors. Although our cognitive ability can be influenced by obvious factors like tiredness and intoxication, there’s another, more subtle force at work: cognitive biases. These are essentially short-cuts developed by our brains. They help us solve problems and interpret information quickly based on patterns we’ve experienced in the past, reinforced over time. But what we gain in efficiency, we pay for in poor judgement. There are hundreds of identified cognitive biases, and neuroscientists are still discovering more.

“I know smoking is bad for me,” says Ian. “I’ve been pretty good with cutting down lately, now that I’m nearly 30, and hardly ever smoke during the day anymore but as soon as it’s Friday drinks and one of my mates light up, I just can’t help but scab one and join him.” There are plenty of people, like Ian, who are equipped with objective information about the negative implications of smoking, but continue to smoke in some capacity anyway.

Addiction plays a complex role, because it changes our brains on a neurobiological level and impairs our ability to make rational or complex decisions. But it’s not the whole picture. There are lots of ways cognitive biases might reinforce someone’s decision to continue to smoke, despite considerable objective (and in some cases strong subjective) evidence of harm. These might seem like simple thoughts, but are founded on various distortions of information. For example, if we’re watching an anti-smoking commercial and think “that’ll never be me,” that’s optimism bias; if we look at older people who smoke and seem healthy to justify our own behaviours, that’s confirmation bias; or if we’re more excited about finding $50 on the footpath than saving $50 from not buying cigarettes, that’s framing effect for you.

If our brains are humming along with these background biases, is it even possible to change the way we think and the choices we make? It is, but it can be damn hard. These are patterns that you may have been thinking about, often subconsciously, for years. “Behavioural change is difficult because over time the behaviour becomes associated with many personal and environmental cues and contexts that act to reinforce the behaviour. Simply experiencing the specific environment will provide a reminder of the behaviour,” says Professor Andrew Lawrence, Head of Behavioural Neuroscience at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health. So if you’re anything like Ian, going to the same pub on a Friday night might be a trigger enough for smoking.

Recognising and understanding why we make the decisions we do can start to give us back the power over the autopilot modes in our brains. Professor Lawrence says it’s important to recognise these cognitive biases in the moment, as they happen, to make effective change. Sometimes it’s unsettling but you need to challenge your brain—catch yourself thinking or feeling a pull towards a certain outcome, and question it. Ask yourself, “Is this actually true, or is this something I’ve come to think out of habit because it’s easier or because it makes me feel better at the time?” If you can change the way you think, you can change what you do.

This article is supported by the NSW Government, who want to help empower you to quit smoking. You can take the first step to quitting smoking here.