When Good Intentions Go Bad: Guest Post by Tess Pajaron

Photo courtesy of Rupert Ganzer

“It’s not a big deal if I do it just this one time…”

Everyone has said a version of this to himself or herself from time to time. We allow ourselves to give in to base pleasures and immediate gratification even though we know in the long run we’re going to feel bad about ourselves. We all know that we do this, but few have really taken the time to think about what it means and how it applies to them in their everyday lives.

Three examples that just about everyone can understand involve cheating – with your budget, your diet, and on your significant other. Who hasn’t decided to splurge on that new Blu-Ray player by putting it on a credit card, and then curse themselves later when it comes time to pay? Or been too tempted by the free jelly doughnuts at work to avoid them and stick with your diet? Heck, some people make a resolution to get fit by working out more, but just never pull themselves away from the computer.

And if you’re congratulating yourself for not cheating on your spouse…good job, but the mechanism by which we make that bad choice and the others described above is the same. If you can’t control yourself in one area, the likelihood that you might slip up in another goes up.

But why do we do it? What is this mechanism that allows us to do things that we know are bad for us and often just plain foolish? Psychologists say that much of it comes down to stress, fear, and memory.

As humans, we are hardwired to actively seek out paths that will keep us from making choices we regret. It is a motivation that comes both from outside social pressures and internal forces. Unfortunately, sometimes the stress of the situation and our own fears about getting it wrong can actually lead us to making poor choices.

But of course, choosing poorly and later regretting those decisions makes things worse because it raises the stakes (and the corresponding stress) the next time the situation comes up. And this is literally true – stressful decisions are known to cause greater activity in the hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex, and medial orbitofrontal regions of the brain. In layman’s terms, the areas that control our emotional memories get all riled up and confuse us when we’re trying to make good decisions.

You would think that having memories of poor choices you’ve made in the past would be a good thing and allow us to make a better decision next time, but because emotions are involved it, can lead to flawed decision-making. Let’s say you cheated in the past, either on your diet or on a significant other – although we’re sure the significant other would disagree, in the context of this discussion they amount to the same thing. Even though the consequences of cheating (weight gain, embarrassment, breaking up, self-loathing) were severe, studies have shown that we put more emphasis on that brief moment of pleasure we got from the actual cheating than the painful aftermath.

So how can we fight against ourselves and make better decisions? You have to be able to look at your decision-making process and spot flaws. And perhaps even more importantly, you need to avoid what Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls narrow framing, where you look at each choice as an individual thing instead of considering how you’ve approached – or wish you’d approached – similar decisions in the past.

Rather than deciding in the middle of an emotion-fueled moment, we can create a system of acceptable responses for ourselves. At its most base level, this is essentially what society and the justice system does for us – it tells us what choices are going to lead to positive and negative outcomes by spelling out what those outcomes will be ahead of time. Of course, saying you’re going to come up with a system that prevents you from making bad choices and actually implementing it are two different things, but the only way to get better is to try.

Tess Pajaron is part of the team behind Open Colleges. Her desire to consistently improve her life led her down the road of psychology. When not working, she loves to travel and discover new places and cultures, having a fancy for modern minimalist architecture and interior design. She can also be found on Cerebral Hacks, where she regularly contributes.

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    • Glenn

      Very interesting post. It does indeed feel as though during times of stress, we are all the more attracted to immediate gratification – and that clearly has a strong potential to be a negative influence on our decision.

      I think “systems” are one way we try to negotiate this dilemma; a role often filled by religion (and/or other organisations). These organisations already have “rulebooks” that help take the emotion out of the decision making.

      But I think there is no substitute for your recommended approach Tess – to be aware and reflect on past failures and find ways to not make the same mistakes – ways that work for you.

      • Tess

        I agree glen! :)

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