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Do You Talk Yourself Into the Wrong Choices?

New research shows how easy it is to convince yourself a bad idea is a good one.

Key points

  • What is it that leads people to make choices that turn out to make them miserable?
  • New research on self-persuasion shows the danger signals to avoid when making your own life choices.
  • Adopting a self-critical mindset may be just what you need to talk yourself into better choices.

A friend of yours recently bought an expensive new tech toy, which you can see in an instant was a huge waste of money. Not only was it overpriced, but it also seemed like an unnecessarily complicated gadget for the task at hand. “You’ve got to get one of these!” insists your friend. Although you’d like to be polite in your response, it’s hard for you to hide your disdain for your friend’s frivolity.

Imagine, in contrast, that you’ve made up your mind that it’s time to replace your kitchen table with one that happened to catch your eye while you were browsing for something else online. After all, you reason, although your current table does the job, it’s getting a bit scratched and worn. Since it’s something you use every day, it’s not really that much of an extravagance to get one that’s shiny and new.

The process of talking yourself into a choice, good or bad, is called “self-persuasion.” As noted by the University of Gothenburg’s Magnus Bergquist and Emma Ejelöv (2022), it’s much easier to talk yourself into a decision than to allow someone else’s decision to persuade you. In their words, “direct persuasion enables people to detect that someone else is trying to persuade them whereas self-persuasion leads people to assume that the motivation to change behavior originates from within the individual.” You might not agree with someone else’s values (as in your tech-loving friend), but it would be hard to disagree with your own (wanting an unscratched piece of furniture).

The Self-Persuasion Effect and Poor Choices

Because the debate you have with yourself is likely to be less contentious than the one you have with someone else, it could be all too easy to follow the path created by your own reasoning, even when that reasoning is flawed. However, because your own values and beliefs didn’t come from nowhere, the decisions you make should also reflect society’s norms, according to the Swedish researchers. This combination effect produces “tailoring,” in which people take that external norm and mold it to their own thinking.

The tailoring process might work something like this in the case of the table. Apart from actual antiques, items that are new tend to be valued more than ones that have seen better days (the normative value). You would only go so far as to put this norm into action if you started to generate your own internal reasons for why you really needed the new table. Once your mind starts hurtling in that direction, it will be difficult to issue a course correction.

Of course, it’s possible that your decision is a good one and that having the new table will make your life more pleasant. The problem arises if you’ve gone through the same flawed thinking as your friend and are about to waste your hard-earned cash for no reason at all.

Putting Self-Persuasion Under the Microscope

With this very basic background, it’s now time to explore how Bergquist and Ejelöv dissected the self-persuasion process. Across three experiments, the U. Gothenburg researchers created conditions in which they tested the influence on decision-making of descriptive norms alone (socially accepted beliefs) with self-persuasion, comparing both to a control condition.

The first two experiments, conducted on online samples of adults (average age in the mid-40s), involved decisions about items such as brands of water bottles. Both experiments provided support for the self-persuasion effect on people’s choices. However, the decision to go with one type of water vs. the other was arbitrary, because neither had any clear advantages. In the third experiment, Bergquist and Ejelöv used a choice that could have health consequences, namely buying natural (healthy) raisins vs. chocolate-covered ones (unhealthy).

The descriptive norm for this experiment was induced through instructions that informed participants that “Most others buy the natural raisins.” The control condition included no normative information. In the self-persuasion condition, participants wrote their own reasons for making their choice. In the self-persuasion norm condition, the researchers showed participants their reasons and asked them if they thought it was a good or bad reason.

The overall findings supported the predictions that self-persuasion proved to have a greater impact on raisin choice than normative information alone. In addition, people tended to like their choices, showing what the authors call “value matching.” Having gone through the self-persuasion condition, 80 to 99 percent of the participants thought their reason for the choice was good.

How Can You Talk Yourself Out of Poor Choices?

The U. Gothenburg findings showed how easy it is to come to love your own choice, good or bad. The choices in these experiments weren't particularly consequential given that one box of unhealthy raisins will hardly change your life expectancy. Yet, the self-persuasion effect seems remarkably easy to generate, especially when the decision is one consistent with broader social values. Returning to the idea of tailoring, you can take any particular value and make it “yours” by going through a long self-justification process.

The answer to the question of how to avoid conformity to yourself may be the very same answer as the one involving your decision not to conform to other people’s values and choices. Be ready to engage a self-critical mindset by taking your decision and examining it in the cold light of further thought. You might even talk it out with a friend and then be prepared to listen to someone else's counterevidence to the self-persuasion reasons you've generated on your own.

To sum up, life is a set of choices, both good and bad. Finding your way from the bad to the good may take a certain degree of short-term resilience but will be worth it in terms of your long-term fulfillment.

References

Bergquist, M., & Ejelöv, E. (2022). Self-persuading norms: Adding a self-persuasion technique strengthens the influence of descriptive social norms. Social Influence, 17(1), 1–16 doi: 10.1080/15534510.2022.2047776

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