The consequences of your decisions.
Posted August 17, 2017
Human beings continually make decisions, large and small; afterwards, there are consequences. Have you ever bought a car and later thought you had bought the wrong car, taken a job and then thought it was the wrong job, ordered a meal at a restaurant and then regretted your choice? Sometimes our decisions don’t lead to desirable outcomes and we wish we had made different choices. When this happens we are experiencing buyer’s remorse.
Although the notion of buyer’s remorse is familiar to most of us and in our personal experience may feel common, social science research reveals that we are actually psychologically motivated to be satisfied with our decisions. On the simplest level, if our choices are informed by trustworthy data we increase the chances of good outcomes. That’s why we hear parents and teachers emphasizing to kids the importance of “making good decisions.” But beyond that, psychological processes, frequently active without our awareness, promote decision satisfaction. According to a well-known theory, cognitive dissonance arises when an individual experiences psychologically inconsistent (dissonant) thoughts (cognitions). For example, the cognition “I am a competent decision maker” is inconsistent with the cognition “I made a bad decision.” Cognitive dissonance is psychologically uncomfortable. And that discomfort motivates the individual to mitigate that discomfort. To reduce the dissonance a person might decide that the decision isn’t so bad, that alternative choices would have created worse consequences, that the good consequences of the choice are so good that they far outweigh its bad aspects. Such dissonance reduction usually cancels out or moderates feelings of buyer’s remorse. Sometimes it leads us to repurpose our buyer’s remorse for defensive purposes. For example, if you can avoid responsibility for the decision (“I was lied to or cheated,” or “Anyone would have made the same choice.”), a bad decision can be reconciled to your belief that you are a good decision maker,
These psychological processes are internal. They take place even if no one else is privy to our thoughts. Often, of course, we have to contend with making our private cognitions public. That is, our concerns about self-presentation can influence the tension between cognitive dissonance and buyer’s remorse. Besides our own psychological discomfort, we don’t want to admit our buyer’s remorse to others for fear that they will think us stupid or incompetent.
Sometimes, however, the negative consequences of a decision are so clear and undeniable, and the usual defensive dismissals so patently inadequate that we cannot avoid private and public acceptance of responsibility for a bad choice. The car you bought constantly breaks down, the company you elect to work for closes, the food you ordered tastes bad. Sometimes, we have no choice but to own up to our buyer’s remorse. Despite our hard-wired resistance to cognitive dissonance and the psychological impulses to eliminate it, most of us experience unadulterated buyer’s remorse from time to time. Allowing ourselves to have that experience is critical to our psychological and social well-being. If we can own up to our buyer’s remorse, it can facilitate better decision-making in the future. Good parents and teachers aim to teach kids the value of failure: It is important to learn from our mistakes, but that is possible only if we acknowledge those mistakes.
The recognition that buyer’s remorse is not only common but healthy could be useful in contending with the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. In the views of highly respected sources ranging from leading academic institutions to world leaders the Trump presidency is characterized not only by ignorance, incompetence, and instability but by a dangerous lack of morality and human compassion. There are reasons for despair. Chief among them is a frustration that stems from the belief that Trump’s voters will support him no matter what. As Trump himself claimed during the campaign, he could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue in New York City and shoot someone and still not lose support. And recent poll results indicate that the vast majority of people who voted for Trump continue to claim they are glad they did even as they acknowledge their upset about his actions that threaten their well-being.
I want to offer a ray of hope. Some of Trump’s voters undoubtedly will continue to back him no matter what. But others, if they permit themselves to experience and admit to buyer’s remorse, may not. Surely many Trump voters believed the campaign rhetoric was only rhetoric, that their candidate would change once in office. Those beliefs now seem wildly off base. Yet those Trump voters share a commitment to our democratic values and institutions and lead lives guided by morality and kindness. Those Trump supporters need the public space to acknowledge their regret. Similarly, many voters who were not, technically, Trump supporters, helped him win by deciding to vote for third party candidates. And many eligible voters decided not to vote at all. Voters who aided Trump’s ascent and are experiencing buyer’s remorse need avenues to confront openly that they made a bad decision. Let us encourage them to honor their post-decisional reactions, understand that those reactions are psychologically normative, and see them for the healthy corrective they can be. How can we do that? We can minimize public shaming. We could even sponsor Trump-voter “second-thought” gatherings to provide social support for the internalized cognitive shifts that accompany public disclosure. It is in our collective interest to encourage buyer’s remorse to come out into the open. After all, there will be future elections.