3 Reasons We Make Terrible Decisions
Turns out it’s not just you—it’s science.
Posted Aug 11, 2016
We all consciously make bad decisions sometimes. They can be small, like funneling sleeves of Thin Mints when we’re ostensibly on a diet, or sending an angry email in the heat of the moment. And sometimes they're big, like having an affair, relapsing into drugs, or getting a tattoo of the KFC Double Down sandwich (this actually happened).
There’s even an entire city built on the knowledge that we do stupid things: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
1. Wanting can overcome liking.
From a 2007 paper in the journal Psychopharmacology comes the idea that there are actually two kinds of pleasure. The first is how we usually think of pleasure—a state of happy satisfaction. This is the gratification we get from a good meal, sex and its afterglow, or that first sip of water when we’re parched. We call this pleasure “liking.”
But a second kind of pleasure comes from the pleasure of pursuing something and feeling excitement, anticipation, seduction, or empowerment. We call this pleasure “wanting.”
In other words, we usually think of “liking” pleasure as the kind Julia Roberts experiences in Eat Pray Love, such as falling in love and eating gelato together—the contentment, relaxation, and feeling loved and safe. The “wanting” pleasure is more like what Vince Vaughn pursues in Swingers—it’s the thrill of the chase and the tingling of desire. It's this second kind of pleasure—the thrill of the chase—that motivates us to do stupid things. Even when we know we’ll regret it in the morning, we fixate on the “wanting” and do it anyway.
The starkest example of this is drug use. Cocaine and methamphetamine in particular are notorious for interfering with the brain’s dopamine system, which is heavily involved in wanting. Over time, in people with the right (or wrong, as it were) combination of predisposition and experience, drug use intensifies from a voluntary and occasional satisfaction to an irresistibly compulsive addiction. The wanting system creates an overwhelming craving that makes addicts seek out hit after hit, even if it makes them feel sick or costs them their health and relationships.
Dopamine also plays a role in non-drug compulsive behaviors like gambling away our paycheck, binge eating, or sexual addiction. Even when you know you’ll hate yourself later, the “wanting” can be undeniably strong.
2. Not having something makes us want it more.
Anyone who’s ever been on a diet knows the effect of deprivation—it not only makes us miserable, it also makes us obsessed. In the famous 1945 Minnesota Starvation Experiment, which was run to determine famine relief practices after World War II, healthy volunteers were semi-starved for six months on a diet of about 1,500 calories a day. The result? Not only were they apathetic, irritable, exhausted, and emaciated, they were also obsessed with food. The participants couldn’t get their minds off it and longingly read cookbooks and stared at pictures of food.
In an interview with one of the participants 60 years later, he said, “Food became the one central and only thing in one’s life. And life is pretty dull if that’s the only thing. I mean, if you went to a movie, you weren’t particularly interested in the love scenes, but you noticed every time they ate, and what they ate.”
Even after the study was over and the participants had recovered to a healthy weight, they reported feeling insatiably hungry. Once done with the study, they ate an average of 5,000 calories a day, sometimes exceeding 10,000 calories.
What does this mean for self-imposed deprivation? If you’re aiming to cut out all sugar, drastically curb spending, exercise excessively, or adopt an overly strict diet, the sudden deprivation might make you crave that forbidden fruit or chocolate bar.
And it gets worse. When you try to suppress that craving, it gets stronger. Suppression is like trying to hold a beach ball underwater. Not only are the thoughts right below the surface, but once the effort of suppression wears you down, the thoughts surge back with a vengeance, which leads you to doing the exact thing you were trying not to do. And once you slip, it leads to...
3. The slippery slope.
Once we accidentally-on-purpose eat the remains of our kid’s abandoned cookie (but it would have gone to waste!) the What the Hell Effect (this is an actual scientific term) kicks in. A bite leads to a whole cookie, because we’ve already given in and might as well enjoy ourselves. That cookie leads to an entire sleeve, and we end up with a stomach ache and a bad case of self-loathing. This first regrettable decision can lead us to eat whatever we choose—on this day, or maybe throughout the week.
While food is the classic example, anything we deprive ourselves of in the name of self-improvement—screen time, spending, sugar—invites the What the Hell Effect. Even a minor criminal offense can snowball: “I got away with stealing that pack of gum; might as well try for the jeans!” In short, we aim for cold turkey, only to end up going whole hog.
There are myriad reasons we do stupid things, and although none of these might explain the Double Down Sandwich tattoo, I’m not sure anything could.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Quick and Dirty Tips.
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Disclaimer: All content is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute for mental health care