Why do we make bad decisions, even though we know what's best?

Why do we make bad decisions, even though we know what's best?

In life, sometimes we make good decisions and other times we make mistakes. There are multiple reasons why we make bad decisions, from being too emotionally involved to not having all the relevant information. But we can't always blame emotions or a lack of information. Although it is difficult for us to admit it, many times we make bad decisions, even if we know what is best, due to simple cognitive laziness.

For example, you are likely to take the same route every day to get from home to work, which is usually the shortest or least busy. But imagine that yesterday there was an accident on the road you usually take, so you took another route and avoided the chaos and traffic. The next day, would you go back to your usual path or would you choose the new path that worked so well for you yesterday?



Most people choose the new path, even though they are aware that the old one is better and only had a problem once.

This small laboratory "experiment" shows that decision making is a complex process that does not always lead us to make logical decisions. Many times we prefer to choose based on our intuitions and things that worked well last time rather than opting for effective solutions that we have tested over time.

When knowing what works is not enough

Researchers at Ohio State University have found that we usually don't make the best decision, even if we know it, because we prefer to choose the path that our intuition points to or bet on things that worked well last time. We simply ignore the evidence that tells us what has worked best over time.


When we have to make a decision - not only the most important but also other less important ones - it is as if we are standing between a rock and a hard place, we experience a conflict in which we debate between doing what we know statistically works and what has worked best lately. .


In the experiment in question, the participants were involved in a simple computer game in which they had to realize the existence of patterns and exploit them to earn more money. The researchers monitored the movements of the computer mouse to see if people could detect the patterns.

The participants repeated the game dozens of times and understood the patterns. However, the researchers added a trick: they designed the game in such a way that the scheme leading to the highest reward didn't work 10 to 40 percent of the time.

At this point the question was: after one of the tests where the scheme that led to the highest reward did not work, what would the participants do? Would they have followed the pattern or would they have chosen another possibility?

The results showed that participants followed the plan that gave them the best chance of success - the one that followed the model that worked at least 6 out of 10 times - only about 20% of the time.

In fact, people didn't quite follow the pattern even when it was consistent. In those cases, they only chose it 40% of the time. At this point, researchers have wondered why we don't choose the best strategy more often and make bad decisions that penalize us.


Victims of cognitive laziness

When we have to make a decision in a complex environment, we can choose two different strategies: implement a fast and intuitive system based on the strengthening of the awarded actions, or apply an analytical system that takes into account both our experience and the characteristics of the environment.

The analytical thinking system leads us to make better decisions because it combines both our past experiences and new demands, taking into account the probabilities and what has worked best over time. However, this system also requires a lot of energy in terms of time and cognitive resources. For this reason we prefer to choose the easiest and fastest way, even if it does not lead us to make the best decision.



Also, the benefits of following the best strategy aren't always obvious, which can discourage us from using up a lot of mental energy. In fact, cognitive laziness increases when we find it difficult to judge whether we have made a good or bad decision based only on the result. In life, we can make a good decision and simply have bad luck and get a bad result. Or we can make a bad decision and get lucky and get a good result.

In these kinds of situations, we are more likely to stop being "disciplined" and become cognitively lazy, opting for the decision that has recently rewarded us, even if it is not the best.

The good news is that we usually know what works best, we just have to stop and think a bit to apply that knowledge and make the best decision. Just apply more analytical thinking and ask yourself if the strategies that worked in the past can be applied to the new situation.


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