How to Choose Happiness: Combat 5 Decision-Making Biases

Choosing happiness can be hard work, but the effort often pays off.

“Life is the sum of all your choices.” –Albert Camus

Happiness is in our hands if only we could make the right decisions in life. Decisions often rely on making accurate predictions of how we will feel in the future. Unfortunately for us psychologists have shown that there are five major biases in the way we predict our future emotional states.

The good news is that psychological research reveals that each of these biases can be countered. Understanding and remembering these five biases will help you make decisions that will increase your happiness.

1. The distinction bias

What is it?
Imagine this: you are offered two jobs. The first is an interesting job that pays $60,000 a year. The second is a boring job that pays $70,000 a year. For the sake of argument, imagine that everything else is equal – which do you choose?

The distinction bias predicts that people will consistently over-estimate the importance of the $10,000 compared to how interesting the job is. Consequently, research shows that many will pick the boring job even though it makes them miserable and the extra money might well make little difference.

How to combat the distinction bias
Ignore conventional wisdom – comparing options directly is often too difficult because we’re forever weighing up apples against oranges. Instead focus on the pros and cons of each scenario individually then make decisions on that basis.

» Read more about the distinction bias.

2. The projection bias

What is it?
Going to the supermarket when I’m really hungry, and without a shopping list, is a recipe for disaster. It will take an act of iron will to avoid returning without some kind of junk food. Later, after eating, I’ll wonder how I could have bought junk food but forgotten healthy staples like rice and pasta.

Part of the reason people make mistakes like this is that research shows the projection bias anchors us in current emotional and cognitive states. The present is often like an emotional cage which we can’t break out of to understand how we will feel in the future.

How to combat the projection bias
To make the most accurate decisions about what will make our future selves happy we need to be in roughly the same emotional state at the moment of choice. The bigger the difference in emotional state between present and future, the worse the decision will be.

» Read more about the projection bias.

3. The impact bias

What is it?
People often overestimate their emotional reaction to future events. Studies have found that two months after a relationship finished people were generally not as unhappy as they expect. It worked the other way around too: sports fans were generally not as happy as they expected when their team won. Finally, academics both overestimated how happy they would be when given tenure, and also overestimated their unhappiness at being denied tenure.

How to combat the impact bias
First, consciously widen your future focus; remember that other events are bound to intervene. Second, remember that rationalisation tends to reduce the emotional impact of both positive and negative events. The future doesn’t normally have such an extreme effect on our emotions (whether good or bad) as we imagine.

» Read more about the impact bias.

4. The memory bias

What is it?
When making decisions about the future, we naturally use events from the past as litmus tests. Unfortunately the type of memories we retrieve to make decisions about our future happiness are often biased to unusual examples that are either very positive or very negative.

A study on subway travellers showed that people freely recalled their previous worst experience of missing the train. As a result they then predicted that if they were to miss the train later that day they would feel worse than did other people who had recalled less disastrous times they had missed the train.

How to combat the memory bias
Recalling more than one past instance of an event you want to make a decision about helps average out the emotion. Also, simply be aware that you are likely to recall the best or worst past example of an event.

» Read more about the memory bias.

5. Belief biases

What are they?
Over time we build up many rules of thumb about the situations that make us happy (or unhappy). Unfortunately we often over-generalise these beliefs to situations where they don’t apply.

Research has uncovered four common belief biases:

  • The contrast effect is the often incorrect belief that a good experience will be more enjoyable when it follows a bad experience (and that a bad experience will be worse when it follows good). Research on jelly bean tasting showed this can be a mirage.
  • More choice is often not better: Research with gourmet jams has found people can be happier, and even better motivated, when they have fewer options to choose from.
  • Adaptation: People often expect that repeated exposure to an experience will lessen the pleasure it gives. Research on ice cream, yoghurt and music showed that most people adapted to the taste, either coming to like it more, or at the very least dislike it less.
  • Certainty: People expect to feel happier when they have reduced the uncertainty in a situation. Often, though, mystery can increase pleasure.

How to combat belief biases
Research suggests the amount that we are swayed by each of these biases depends on how much we believe in them. So, just reading, remembering and believing (!) this post should allow you to combat the belief biases.

» Read more about belief biases.

Following through on decisions

Even after conquering these biases, we need to actually follow through with the decision. This is where the happiness-seeking individual gets into trouble again… Read the second part of this article: 4 Reasons We Fail to Choose Happiness.

[Image credit: xpectro]

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 29 May 2008

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Images: Creative Commons License