Why Changing Your Mind is Hard
People don’t like changing their minds (for an extreme example see: Bachmann, Michele). Most research ties this tendency to things like status quo biases, sunk cost effects, and inaction inertia, but a new study by researchers at the University of Oslo investigates whether there is a connection between changing our minds and feelings of regret. Through a series of experiments they discovered that people who change their minds experience more regret than those who don’t even when the new decisions lead to positive outcomes.
Three studies were conducted to explore participants’ regret when making reversible decisions and to test the hypothesis that changing one’s mind will increase post-outcome regret. The first two studies employed the Ultimatum game and the Trust game. The third study used a variant of the Monty Hall problem. All games were conducted by individual participants playing interactively against a computer. The outcomes were designed to capture a common characteristic of real-life decisions: they varied from rather negative to fairly positive, and for every outcome, it was possible to imagine both more and less profitable outcomes. In all experiments, those who changed their minds reported much stronger post- outcome regret than those who did not change, even if the final outcomes were equally good (Experiments 2 and 3) or better (Experiment 1)
The authors offer two potential explanations. One is simply that being able to make a comparison with another decision decreases satisfaction. Call it specific a case of the “paradox of choice.” The other explanation essentially says people treat their initial decision as the de facto status quo, and the status quo bias makes them regret changing it.
I think there may be a third explanation. According to system justification theory, we favor the status quo because we want to think the present world we live in is perfect. When something changes, it’s evidence that wasn’t entirely true. (Why would a perfect world need to change?) Similarly, we like to think that our beliefs, opinions, and decisions are inherently correct. But when you change your mind, it’s explicit evidence that you are not always right. The desire to believe you’re always right in the face of evidence that you’re sometimes wrong then creates cognitive dissonance that manifests itself as feelings of regret.
From an education or policy standpoint there’s not really a great solution to this bias. Perhaps the best thing to do is constantly remind people that everybody is wrong a lot of the time.
Kirkebøen, G., Vasaasen, E., & Halvor Teigen, K. (2011). Revisions and Regret: The Cost of Changing your Mind Journal of Behavioral Decision Making DOI: 10.1002/bdm.756
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