Why do we make bad decisions?

How do people make decisions? Especially the difficult ones? Why do we make bad decisions from time to time? These are loaded questions but there has to be some reasoning for them right? It can be especially astonishing when you look back on your own decisions or the decisions of another and think, how could I or (they) have thought that it would have been a good idea? This reasoning seems to be justification. We justify decisions prior to and after to make ourselves “ok” with following through or reflecting on why we have made a particular decision. I am going to take a closer look at how justification works.

Many decisions in life cause a feeling of dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is defined as conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors (McLeod, 2014). In the cognitive dissonance theory we have a drive to keep our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in harmony and avoid dissonance (Festinger, 1957). Imagine you are accepted to the college that you have dreamed to get into for years…but there is a catch. It means you have to move over a thousand miles away from the girl or guy you have been together and in love with for a couple years now. This will probably cause ALOT of dissonance. In weighing these decisions there is good and bad outcomes of each but the real issue is that you cannot have the good outcomes of both situations. There are many situations like this that you have to choose or decide. Another example would be a person to stop drinking alcohol because they were recently arrested for a D.U.I. The good outcome of quitting would not be getting into any more trouble because of alcohol but wouldn’t get the good outcomes of continuing to drink such as feeling relaxed and feeling a part of with friends. The issue is you cannot have both good outcomes of choices. This is where the idea of justification comes into play in making decisions.

One other idea to consider before getting to justification is the role that emotions play in decision making. A lot of emotions come into play in decisions expected, immediate, and incidental emotions can all become involved (Goldstein, 2011). (Goldstein, 2011) also notes that people tend to overestimate what their negative feelings about a decision will be. This is linked to that people do not take into consideration the different coping mechanisms they use to deal with adversity (Goldstein, 2011). This is where people begin to use justification. Justification is defined as an acceptable reason that a person finds to do something (Webster, 2008). (McLeod, 2008) reports that to do this we either change our attitudes or beliefs, acquire new information, or reduce the importance of certain beliefs or attitudes. Going back to the two prior examples maybe a person would say “if my boy/girlfriend really loved me they would move across the country to be with me” or in the drinking example one might say “I wasn’t that drunk and the cop made up a reason to pull me over”.

Both of those examples are using justifications the first is changing attitudes because even though you know the girl or guy loves you it a big decisions to let some of your goals to the side to stay in a relationship. The drinking one is reducing the importance because it is deflecting responsibility onto the cop not looking at the idea that it is dangerous to operate a vehicle under the influence. These coping mechanisms such as justification seem to be built into us.  How do we avoid justification?

The first step is to become aware you are doing so (this often requires help from an outside source) then identify why you are trying to justify a given belief, attitude or behavior.  Is it self preservation, pleasure, or pride etc. that is keeping you to continue using it? I think a major key is getting feedback or thoughts on big decisions we are going to need to make and becoming educated. A pro’s and con’s list can sometimes help in the decision making process. There is many things that can help reduce justification but awareness is key. Although they help I do not think justification in decision making is going anywhere soon.

McLeod, S. (2008). Cognitive Dissonance Theory | Simply Psychology. Retrieved August 2, 2015.
Goldstein, E. (2011). Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (3rd ed.). Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.




2 thoughts on “Why do we make bad decisions?

  1. Daniel James Gockerell

    Great post on bad decisions! I enjoyed the examples that you used for cognitive dissonance, with a student getting accepted to their dream college, but it’s thousands of miles away and a dui and drinking alcohol. I agree that people tend to overestimate what their negative feelings about their decisions will be. I think most people notice at an early age when you fixate on the problem the feelings obviously become stronger and stronger until eventually becoming overwhelming. (Goldstein, 2011) this in turn is the catalyst for justification. I can see this in the example of the student getting accepted to their dream college, in that they know that in the coming weeks they have to make a decision and the closer and closer to the dead line, the student thinks and justifies what his/her potential decision will be. Whether they go or stay for their significant other. With the student potentially justifying that if their significant other loved them, then they would move for them, I think also highlights that justification is built into us, as you discussed in your post. I believe bemoaning aware of your dissonance and especially being aware of justification can be very helpful. All in all I feel that becoming aware of any exigent and decision making should be done by someone other than yourself, this helps because it highlights the problem and helps the individual to see the problem from a different perspective.

    Goldstein, E.B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience, Third Ed. Belmont, CA. Wasdworth, Cengage Learning.

  2. Jean E Marchut

    I find this cognitive dissonance very interesting and from what I understand from McLeod’s article, these situations involve conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors as he made the example of smoking. As a former smoker I can completely relate. The same would be with how you tied someone quitting drinking to a recent arrest for a DUI or being selected to a dream college knowing that you will have to move thousands of miles away from a serious relationship and how there are two potential outcomes to both of these situations, one good and one bad, and how we essentially have to choose (Richard, 2015). Sometimes when we make this choice, it may be good for us, but not what others feel is the best, without hurting another person or causing conflict. I think that is what Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory is about, that we have this inner drive to keep our beliefs and attitudes in harmony, to avoid dissonance which I understand to be, if we hold an understanding of something, like smoking. When a discrepancy is evoked (smoking is bad and causes cancer), this causes the dissonance and we would do whatever we can to eliminated this discrepancy or dissonance to achieve harmony. But then when you tied in the tendency of a person trying to justify their actions, which I believe is to try and reduce the importance or dissonance of their beliefs (McLeod, 2008), this highlighted to me how people sometimes will do anything to try and cope with poor decisions and achieve that harmony. I agree that that one of the first steps is to be aware of this behavior and do not think that justification in decision making is unfortunately going anywhere either (Richard, 2015).

    Goldstein, E.B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience, Third Ed. Belmont, CA. Wasdworth, Cengage Learning.
    Richard, R (2015, August 2). Why do we make bad decisions? [Web log message.] Retrieved from: https://sites.psu.edu/pscyh256su15/2015/08/02/why-do-we-make-bad-decisions/
    Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
    McLeod, S. (2008). Cognitive Dissonance Theory | Simply Psychology. Retrieved August 3, 2015.

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