Why we make stupid decisions…

Have you ever wondered why people tend to make such awful decisions when the right thing to do seems so clear on paper?  Why an electrician would climb up into a mess of wires with no protective gear (see picture above)…  Why a college student would decide to party instead of study for the big final…  Why someone would choose to send a text, read the newspaper, or put on makeup while they are driving (all of which I observe during my daily commutes)…  Why someone would choose to order the Big Mac and super-sized fries instead of eating a fresh meal at home…  Inherently, we know all of these to be bad decisions, but yet we see them over and over again, even sometimes from ourselves.  Why in the world is that?  Is there a gene in some of us that predisposes ourselves to this self-destructive behavior?

I was recently exposed to a good explanation for this through work, in the form of a concept known as “consequence management”.  Basically, it is a set of tools to understand the decisions of individuals that are engaging in either a desired or an unwanted behavior.  It is based on the concept that all behaviors and all decisions are primarily influenced by two things; 1) the environment and circumstances under which the behavior is observed (“antecedents”) and 2) the impacts of the behavior/decision on the individual, both positive and negative (“consequences”).  Some literature suggests that of the two, antecedents and consequences; consequences are responsible for about 80% of the decision making process, with the following trends:

  • Positive consequences are usually stronger than negative consequences (we seek pleasure)
  • Immediate consequences are stronger than delayed/long term consequences (we value instant gratification)
  • Certain/known consequences are stronger than possible/potential consequences (we downplay risk)
  • Visible/local consequences are stronger than distant/hidden consequences (out of sight, out of mind)

Almost all of the examples above are cases where the immediate, positive, certain consequence (e.g. – I fixed the electrical problem, I had fun partying, I got done some extra things while driving, I am full and happy from the fast food) is prioritized over the delayed, potential, negative consequence (I get hurt on the job, I fail my class, I get into an accident, I become overweight and sick).  For example as a college kid, you are stressed out on a Friday night after a long week of classes and convince yourself that even though you have an exam on Monday, going out with your friends is a good idea (certain, immediate, positive consequence of having fun, relieving stress, etc…) despite the fact that it may lead to you sleeping in on Saturday, studying less, being tired on Monday for the exam, and potentially failing the exam, not graduating on time, and missing out on your ideal career (all to some degree are delayed, potential, and negative).

OK, so these example are not all that profound, but at least it gave me a framework to understand these things a little better.  I then tried using that same line of thinking to help describe some of the bigger things that puzzle me, like how huge commercial food conglomerates can put out such a poor quality product which mounting evidence shows is making us increasingly unhealthy as a society.  Or how the energy industry can justify destroying so many of our natural resources to meet production quotas.  Or how our households, towns, cities, and countries can continue to decide to spend money that we don’t have on so many things that we don’t want or need to live.  I realized that, in the end, all of these things are the result of individual people, or groups of individuals, making decisions.  Decisions that provide those individuals with immediate, certain, visible, positive consequences (be it money, power, control, influence, job security, etc…).  Decisions whose negative consequences to the individual (if there are any at all) are a combination of delayed (some playing out over many generations and never actually observed by the individual), “potential” (in highly interconnected systems, it is difficult to link a single decision to any specific negative outcome over long periods of time), and distant/hidden (even when they are horrible and severe, many times the negative consequences are far away and will never be seen by the person that made the decision).  It is easy to think that all of the people that make these decisions must be evil, horrible individuals.  I am sure that in some rare cases they are, but I also think it is possible that some might just be normal humans acting in a system that has stacked the chips so far in the favor of the individual, with positive consequences so great, and negative consequences so mitigated or removed altogether that there can be almost no other outcome than for them to choose themselves over others.  I once heard a quote that we should “never assign to malice that which can be explained by incompetence”.  This is a similar thing…never assume that a decision is the result of a well thought out long term strategic analysis when it can be explained by the nature of the human being making the decision.

It feels sometimes like we are no longer living in a world of logic, morality, or principles that binds societies together.  Instead, it feels like we have been so separated from one another that we have been reduced to individuals who are left to act on nothing but our human nature, which in the end is ultimately very highly predictable and easily influenced.  So, what is a well-meaning person to do under such circumstances to guard themselves from bad decisions?  Here are some things that we have done in our lives:

1) Pay attention to decisions that are being made by others that can affect you: many times, a bad decision survives because it goes unnoticed.  If you can shed light on a bad decision, sometimes it is enough to counteract it.  Watch the news (from multiple sources), keep your eyes on issues that are important to you.  You may not always be able to change decisions that can affect you, but being aware of them allows you to mitigate their effects.

2) Question the answers:  Many times when you hear about or read about something that is going on, you are not getting the whole story.  Often, there is a spin put on the issue to downplay any negative consequences, highlight the positive consequences to you, and hide the positive consequences to the individual who made the decision.  Think about what drives the person who made the decision, and how that decision might benefit them.  Once you understand what motivates people, you will be more able to adjust, react, and influence your own situation.

3) Love thy neighbor: Too often, bad decisions get made because we have removed ourselves from the people around us.  It is easier to blow your snow into your neighbors driveway or call the cops on them when the radio is too loud when you don’t know them, probably the same as it is easier to set up a sweatshop in a far away country when you have never been there.  Get to know the people around you.  The more deep, meaningful and diverse relationships you have, the less likely it is that someone will see you as just another person, and the less likely you will be to make a decision that marginalizes others.

4) Have no debts: Some of the worst decisions that I have seen made have been in the pursuit of money.  The most toxic of these decisions is related to debt.  Being in debt introduces myriad negative consequences that force you into decisions that you might otherwise not make.  Consider the following theoretical situation…you buy a house and a car that you can barely pay for.  You use a credit card to buy things that you can’t afford because of your mortgage and car payment.  You stay in a job that you hate to pay off the credit card.  You borrow more money to pay off what you already owe when you lose that job that you hate.  You gamble in the hopes of hitting it big and getting you out of the hole.  Your life is crumbling around you as the decisions get worse and worse.  Sure, this is an exaggeration to some degree, but the less debt you have, the less likely it is that you will be influenced by money, and the more likely it is that you can make decisions based on your morals, your principles, and your heart.

5) Keep your eye on the long haul: Nothing good in life comes easy.  Think about the consequences of your actions, not 0nly in the “now”, but also in the next days, months, and years.  How will the decision affect your kids…your grandkids…your descendants that you will never see or meet?  The concept of being willing to sacrifice an easy today for a better tomorrow is lost on most folks today, but indeed it is the only thing that can lead to a sustainable life.  Be the one to stand out and make a different decision.

Being free to make decisions that are aligned with your true values and guarding yourself against the poor decisions of others is at the core of living a more free lifestyle.  What things have you done in your life to improve your decisions?