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Why Changing Your Mind is Hard

2011 September 23
by Eric Horowitz

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

7 Responses
  1. September 23, 2011

    My hypothesis is that it has an evolutionary reason. During evolution some mechanism was born that would keep us on track once we acquire a goal. Regret would prevent changing one’s mind and stick with the original plan. Without this mechanism one would get distracted by every new diversion. Just like in Utilization behavior.

  2. September 26, 2011

    Most of the attitudes that we have, we learned in childhood. We then use these deeply stored attitudes to make decisions. To truly change an opinion we have to dig deeply, review our attitudes and training and root them out, Is it any wonder that people as a whole have a hard time rejecting the past to make it possible to truly change their minds?

  3. November 11, 2011

    Change isn’t easy, and so is also changing a decision that you have made. You’ve spent lots of time and energy convincing yourself that it’s the right thing to do. Maybe you even told people about you decision, so you’re afraid to lose face when you change your mind.

    Back to the Root Cause, which is assuming that you can take good decisions. Often you cannot, you do not have sufficient time and information to do it. You take the best decision possible, given what you know now. If it turns out that it was wrong, admit it, learn from it, and change it.

    I’ve seen great benefit when changing decisions, our mind, or any other relevant changes in the Retrospective Prime Directive, which we’ve used a lot when improving software development in an agile way. I’ve also used this in Agile Retrospectives, to continuous improve the way we work and deliver more value for our customers.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

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