There are two requirements for decision-making that will bring happiness in the future. First we need to know how a particular decision will make us feel in the future. To do this accurately we need to avoid the systematic biases that affect how we predict our future emotional states.
This is no mean feat in itself – the distinction bias, projection bias, impact bias, memory bias and belief biases are tricky customers.
Second we need to actually follow through with the decision. This is where the happiness-seeking individual gets into trouble again because even when we know what will make us happy, we still don’t choose it.
Christopher K. Hsee and Reid Hastie from the University of Chicago point to the four main reasons that we don’t follow through with decisions that will make us happy (Hsee & Hastie, 2006).
1. Poor rules of thumb
We each follow certain rules of thumb which mean that even though we know what will make us happy we still don’t choose it. Here are two common examples:
- Don’t waste: We hate to waste money. Research shows that when people have double-booked an activity they will choose whichever one is more expensive, even when they know they won’t enjoy it as much.
- Variety is the spice of life: Research shows people choose variety even though they know it won’t make them happier. Often choosing what we know we like – the same again – is the best option for maximising pleasure.
2. Slaves to rationality
We like our decision-making to appear rational; unfortunately decisions that appear rational can make us less happy.
Research shows that people prefer to receive a gift of a chocolate shaped like a cockroach over that shaped like a heart even though they know they’ll prefer the heart-shaped chocolate. Why? Because they’re told the cockroach shaped chocolate is worth $2 and the heart-shaped chocolate only 50c. It’s more rational to choose the higher-priced gift – but it makes people less happy.
3. Obsession with medium over outcome
We love to collect tokens of value, whether it’s air miles or cold, hard currency. In fact, we love collecting the tokens so much we quickly forget what they’re for. Research shows people will strive hard to obtain a medium (tokens or money) while paying little regard to what that medium can actually be used for.
What’s interesting about impulsivity for Hsee and Hastie is that it’s exactly what the other three factors are trying to protect against. Rules of thumb like ‘don’t waste’ as well as our obsession with collecting tokens (money) work against our impulse to spend. Similarly trying to appear rational is another way of trying to limit our profligacy.
Fool me twice, shame on me
The reasons we sometimes fail to choose happiness are straightforward enough. First we find it hard to predict what will make us happy and second, even if we can make an accurate prediction, we still don’t choose it.
It’s not the end of the world though. Clearly we do sometimes manage to make the right decisions, even if it is pure chance. Research suggests it’s likely that being aware of these types of biases and lapses will help us fight against them.
Don’t be fooled by what seem like trivial examples in some of the studies – they’re all designed to mimic everyday decision-making. Also don’t think that these are the kinds of mistakes that only ‘other people’ make. Almost everyone is convinced they are not like other people.
So next time you’re making a decision that will affect your future happiness (and most decisions do), remember this post and don’t make the same old mistakes again.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.