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Not so long ago I went walking in Mount Kosciusko quite unprepared. I knew the weather could change without warning, yet I went out in a pair of shorts and a tee shirt, and the weather did change. A few hours later I returned wet through, dangerously cold, and feeling very sorry for myself. On another occasion, I was similarly unprepared and went walking in a deep dried out river bed. As it happens, I missed the path out and found myself wandering along the river bed in unfamiliar surroundings, not knowing how long I had been walking, nor for how far, or in which direction I was heading or what time it was – and with no way of finding out!

So why do we make bad choices and remain committed to them even when they prove disastrous? We do irrational things all the time, make stupid choices that we regret later. It’s not like we consciously decide to act like a fool. Rather, in those moments when we are making a decision, we seem to be quite pleased and reasonable with our choice. It’s only later we realize how distorted our sense of reality was.

The answer is complex and has a lot to do with the individual making the choice, but it seems we are inherently terrible at objectively assessing risks and rewards

In general, our decision making we tend to be overly influenced by emotions rather than reason which then gives rise to those ‘regrettable’ decisions:

  1. When tired, hungry or emotionally charged, we tend to make really terrible decisions
  2. Our ego can trap us with a bad decision we made earlier and instead of changing course, we continue investing in it which reinforces our sense of self
  3. In certain social contexts we seek social approval and are inclined towards collective opinion
  4. We tend to look for and favor data that backs up what we already believe -- and conversely avoid or look poorly on data that goes against what we already believe
  5. We give undue weight to recent information and form opinions and make decisions biased toward whatever is recent and therefore what we immediately recall
  6. We focus on people or things that have succeeded and try to replicate their scenario to our own situation. In doing so we overlook what might be a more common and reliable (less risky) approach. Just because a strategy, or a technique, or a plan worked once doesn’t make it a blueprint for future endeavors.
  7. We opt for a small gain in the moment without evaluating the future costs;
  8. We refuse to rethink our bad decisions or sleep on it

Learning to catch bad decisions is the only way to enhance the quality of our future decisions and avoid making decisions we end up regretting. We may not be able to prevent all of them, but if we can become aware of some of these sublinear influences and may just avoid some of the woeful decsions. 

Ian Mayer