Dwelling on Bad Decisions May Lead to More Bad Decisions

There's a saying about preludes...

Are we doomed to repeat the past? Nope. Nothing is inevitable. Still, patterns exist and they tell a very different story from the one we might want to tell ourselves. Going against everything we ever learned from teen movies, new research in the Journal of Consumer Psychology suggests that recalling past mistakes can sometimes lead us to repeat them rather than to learn from them. How we act may depend more on who we think we are than who we plan to be.

It seems counterintuitive that thinking about, say, the last time you binged on two Chipotle burritos would lead you to do it again. But according to the work by Dr. Hristina Nikolova, an assistant professor of marketing in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, recalling that memory might reinforce the idea that you’re simply not good at self control. We tend to act in a way that’s consistent with how we think of ourselves. This is, presumably, why vicious cycles get so damn vicious.

In the study, participants were asked to recall either two or ten instances where they successfully resisted buying something really expensive. The participants were then asked how much debt they’d be willing to rack up to buy something they really wanted. Those who had to recall 10 memories were willing to incur 21 percent more.

Here’s why: Coming up with two memories is easy. Thinking of 10? Not so much. When people struggled to think of times they exercised self-control, it led them to think they were simply not good at it, and they were more likely to repeat their failures. In contrast, those who had the easy task of recalling just two memories believed they were good at self control — and in an attempt to be consistent with what they thought of themselves, they continued to exercise it. It is, unfortunately for us, easier to remember what we did than what we didn’t do.

To make matters worse, research shows that thinking about our failures puts us in a bad mood, which also leads us to indulge in activities, like retail therapy or drinking, which might prove expensive or end poorly.

It’s an interesting bit of research that could go a long way in designing programs to help people with self-control issues. While it doesn’t say it’s a bad idea to try and learn from our mistakes, it does suggest it might be worth it to avoid dwelling on the past.

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