This Is Why You Can't Stop Making Bad Decisions, Research Shows

Kali Coleman
·4 mins read

Every time you make a decision, you're looking for signs of the right answer, whether it's what your brain is telling you, what a friend is telling you, or what your heart is telling you. But if you find yourself consistently making choices you regret, that may be because you're looking in the wrong place for the answer. In fact, according to recent research, chances are high that you keep making bad decisions because you're following this common mantra: "Go with your gut." Read on to find out why your gut is leading you astray, and for more on what's sending you down the wrong path, check out This Is the Absolute Worst Time to Make a Decision, Study Says.

A 2020 study, published in the journal Nature Communications in April, found that when making decisions, people tend to know which choice would give them the best chance of success, yet they still pick another option. Ian Krajbich, PhD, co-author of the study and associate professor of psychology and economics at Ohio State University, said this is because people often make their decisions based on a "gut feeling," rather than what they know works most often.

Another study published in April in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found similar results among those dealing with medical emergencies. Those findings showed that people tend to make their decisions based on gut feelings surrounding anecdotal information. "Specifically, we show that when an issue is health-related, personally relevant or highly threatening, then decision-making is compromised and people tend to rely on anecdotes," study co-author Traci Freling, PhD, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Texas Arlington, said in a statement.

Worried senior man sitting alone in his home
Worried senior man sitting alone in his home

The emotion that seeps into your decision-making processes tends to make you veer toward the wrong choice, says psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, PhD, author of It Ends with You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction.

"In our complicated brains, there are two main parts that govern decisions: the pre-frontal cortex, which makes rational decisions, and the limbic brain, which makes emotional ones. When we are too overwhelmed and stressed to think things through, we default to the emotional brain, which we call our 'gut' because our stomach and gut are usually churning and activated in this state," Tessina explains. "It's not so much that we trust our gut, more like we fall helplessly into emotion, which floods our body with hormones—usually fight or flight—and the choices come from there."

According to Tessina, a gut-based decision is typically going to be a bad one because it's "always reactive, unless you have learned to work with it." She says that thoughtful responses help someone make better decisions, but this involves staying calm during the decision-making process.

"The best way to work with gut feelings is by getting both parts of your brain to work together," Tessina explains. "This takes time, but once you master it, your feelings will inform your decisions, not take them over."

For her steps to combat making reactive decisions over thoughtful ones, read on. And for more advice to follow if you're stuck, check out This Is the Easiest Way to Make a Decision, Research Shows.

1

Pay attention to signals

sad older white woman sitting on a couch
sad older white woman sitting on a couch

Tessina says you should try to recognize when you're feeling anxious about a decision. This can easily be characterized by rapid heartbeat or shortness of breath, which is a "strong indication that you're in fight or flight mode," she says. And for more on handling stressful situations, check out How You're Making Your Anxiety Worse.

2

Try to use logic

Man thinking
Man thinking

Simply asking yourself some logical questions about what you're doing and how you are feeling can help you think through a decision more clearly, Tessina explains. She says that asking yourself about the facts—including who, what, when, where, and why questions—is the best place to start with your logical thinking. And if you can't explain what you're doing logically, it most likely means you're making a "reactive rather than rational decision." And for more ways you may be thrown off, check out This Is What Makes You Gullible, No Matter Your Age.

3

Think about previous experiences

Thoughtful senior woman sitting at home with digital device, looking away and daydreaming
Thoughtful senior woman sitting at home with digital device, looking away and daydreaming

Sometimes you just need to "remind yourself of all your adult experience and competence," Tessina says. This can help you feel more competent, as well as more in charge of your own life. And this confidence can help you calm down to make a more thoughtful decision. And for more ways to boost your confidence, check out The Best Expert-Backed Tips on How to Be More Confident.

4

Develop a plan

woman working at home and sign business paper. Focus is on hand. Close up. Space for copy.
woman working at home and sign business paper. Focus is on hand. Close up. Space for copy.

Your last step in the decision-making process should be to develop a plan. Tessina says you should "make a reasonable plan to accomplish whatever you want to do, break it down into steps, and stick to it." This way, your chances of being sidetracked by emotional reactions is severely reduced. And for more useful content delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.