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4 reasons we make bad choices

4 reasons why we make bad choices

3 min read
  • The science of learning

Everyone can remember a choice they’ve made that they have later come to regret. Whilst bad choices cannot always be avoided, there are several factors to be aware of that can give you a better chance of making better choices in the future.

Too many choices

Presenting someone with too many choices often leads to poor decisions. Research into consumer preferences have found that, although individuals like having more options (in this case it was if 30 or 6 types of chocolate bars were available), having more led to greater dissatisfaction and regret. Giving people too many choices can lead to unfavourable decisions being made as they become unsure and feel burdened by the responsibility of making the correct choice.

Disregard for long-term consequences

People often make bad choices when they only consider the present effects of their decisions and disregard the long-term consequences. This was demonstrated in a famous piece of marketing where Coca Cola changed their recipe after a taste test that showed the public preferred Pepsi. However, changing their recipe didn’t cause the expected increase in sales; instead, Coca Cola sales declined. What had happened was that people preferred just one sip of Pepsi as it was sweeter, so rated it higher in the taste test. But it was too sweet to drink a whole bottle of, so people would have continued to buy Coke.

Similarly, when students were asked whether they would like to spread out their deadlines or have them grouped at the end, many opted to have them grouped at the end. However, this decision was detrimental to performance as those who spread out their deadlines obtained considerably higher grades than their counterparts who had opted for deadlines close together. Therefore, we can see that individuals often can make choices based on current enjoyment (e.g. one sip of Pepsi and leaving work until the last minute) that may not reflect what is best for them in the long run.

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Praising abilities

The type of praise an individual receives can have either positive or detrimental effects on the choices they make. Research found that, when children are praised for their ability rather than their effort, they are much more likely to choose an easy task that they are certain to succeed in. Children praised for ability fear failing and looking stupid, whereas children praised for their effort want to try difficult tasks, that enrich their learning.

Mindless habits

Having a habit for something means that one does not consider their habitual behaviour before carrying it out; and it is this lack of consideration that can lead to bad choices being made. In one particular study, participants were given either a box of stale or fresh popcorn to eat at the cinema. All participants rated the stale popcorn as unpleasant, but participants with a strong habit for eating popcorn at the cinema consumed the same amount, regardless of whether the popcorn was stale or fresh. However, if eating popcorn at the cinema was not a habit, participants consumed considerably less stale popcorn. Therefore, strong habits can cause individuals to make bad choices.

Research conducted in the Netherlands asked individuals to select one of five travel modes to make an unfamiliar journey, based on a range of information (e.g. physical effort, probability of delay etc.). The researchers found that those who had a habit for using their bike for travel consulted 14 pieces of information before choosing their bike whereas those who didn’t have a habitual travel mode consulted 19 pieces of information, before making a choice. It appears that habits are often used as a cognitive shortcut, stopping information from being carefully considered.

Final thoughts

There are a number of different reasons as to why individuals make bad choices. They may not consider the long-term consequences, they may want to preserve their self-image, or rely too much on habitual behaviours; but perhaps most surprising is that bad choices can result from having too many options. Therefore, we hope that by highlighting some of the reasons as to why individuals make poor choices, you are now better equipped to making the best choices for you moving forward.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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