Why We Make Dumb Choices

Decisions, decisions. From the time you wake up (should I hit the snooze?) until you go to bed (should I eat that midnight snack?), you’re making decisions all day long—and some of them turn out to be the wrong ones. Afterward, there’s nothing left to do but shake your head and wonder what you could have been thinking.

If you catch a bad decision before you act, however, there’s still time to correct it. That’s where an awareness of common pitfalls comes in handy. Luckily, in the last few years, researchers have learned a lot about psychological factors that can lead smart people to make dumb choices. Here’s what you need to watch out for.

Acting on Emotion

We like to believe that decision making is a rational process. Science suggests otherwise, however. Brain imaging studies show that the brain’s emotional pathways react to events faster than its cognitive pathways do. Consequently, before you can form a thought about something, emotions are influencing what you notice, what you don’t, and how you feel about it. By the time cognition kicks in, emotions have already swayed your judgment.

This isn’t always a bad thing. Emotions can provide valuable information. For example, fear can inform you when it’s a smart choice to run away as fast as you can.

But emotions can also lead you astray. According to scientists at Harvard’s Emotion and Decision Making Group, poor choices often result from incidental emotions—feelings that arise from past events, but carry over to current ones. To reduce such errors, pay close attention to the emotions you’re feeling when making a decision, and ask yourself whether they’re really relevant and appropriate to the situation at hand.

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Feeling Stressed Out

Stress can affect how you size up risks and rewards to reach a decision, according a recent article in Current Directions in Psychological Science. When study participants are put under stress—for example, by being asked to give a speech—they tend to fixate on positive information and discount negative information. As a result, they’re prone to decisions that err on the overly optimistic side.

This helps explain a lot of self-destructive behavior. People who are stressed may focus on how good another drink, a second piece of cake, or an extravagant purchase will feel, while they discount the negative fallout they’ll face tomorrow. To reduce such errors, pay extra attention to the possible downside of any choice that’s made under stress.

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Being Sleep Deprived

Sleep enhances the complex thinking skills needed to reach good decisions. In a study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, students were first briefly introduced to a card game, but without revealing the rules for winning. Twelve hours later, they were given a chance to play the game long enough to figure out the rules. Those who had slept between sessions understood the rules better and made smarter plays than those who had stayed awake.

While sleep can improve decision making, lack of enough sleep has the opposite effect. Among other things, studies have shown that sleep deprivation interferes with thinking clearly, evaluating risks, controlling behavior, and reasoning about moral dilemmas. To reduce such errors, make sleep a priority in your life. And when you have time to mull over a choice, sleep before you leap.

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Drinking and Deciding

You don’t need a researcher to tell you what happens to your decision-making ability when you’ve had too much to drink. However, a recent study from the University of Missouri-Columbia offers insight into how alcohol has this effect.

In the study, volunteers drank an alcoholic, non-alcoholic, or placebo beverage. Then they took part in a challenging computer task designed to elicit some errors. People in the alcohol group were just as likely as those in the other groups to realize when they made mistakes. But EEGs showed that alcohol reduced the brain’s alarm signal in response to these errors.

In other words, people under the influence knew when they messed up. They just didn’t care at the time. Out in the world, that’s a recipe for morning-after regrets. To reduce such errors, don’t overindulge—and if you do drink too much, leave the decisions up to a trusted, sober friend.

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