When given an option between a reversible decision and an irreversible decision, we tend to prefer the former. We like money back guarantees. We like no strings return policies. There is something comforting about knowing that we can change our minds in the future.
There is less pressure on us to make the perfect choice. We are not stuck if we make a bad decision.
We’re also inadvertently undermining our own happiness.
In the first study, students were taught to take and develop black and white photographs. They developed and printed two “personally meaningful” photos. After this, the researchers asked them to pick one to take home with them and one to leave with the teacher. Half of the students were told that they could come back and swap within the next four days, while the other half were told that their choice would be final and irreversible.
The people who were not allowed to swap their photo actually grew to like their photograph more as time passed. They became more confident that they had made the right decision. People who were given the opportunity to change their minds remained uncertain and less happy, even after the deadline to swap had passed.
In the second study students ranked nine posters of paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, and El Greco. They were told that that there were extra copies of two of these posters and they were allowed to take one home with them. The two just happened always to be the two that the student had ranked third and fourth. Again, half were told that they could swap posters (this time within the next month) and the other half were told that they could not.
And again the people that could not change their mind were happier with the choice that they made.
Why Does This Happen?
Gilbert and Ebert discuss what they call the “psychological immune system.” This system kicks into high gear to mentally defend the position in which you find yourself.
“Human beings are famous for seeking, attending to, interpreting, and remembering information in ways that allow them to feel satisfied with themselves and their lots.” Basically, our minds start twisting our situation into the best light to make us feel better about our lives. And if you don’t believe this, Gilbert and Ebert cite twenty different studies that you can check out if you’re interested.
The problem appears to be that when you keep your options open, your psychological immune system doesn’t have a chance to kick in. Instead of subconsciously defending the decision that you made, you are constantly trying to figure out whether your decision was right or whether you should change it.
On top of that, you will continue to hone in on all of the negatives of the option that you chose while debating whether to switch. Even if you ultimately stick with your original decision, your enjoyment will be diminished because of all of the extra time you spent highlighting the negatives in your mind.
This may ultimately make you more likely to make the best objective choice, but what benefit is that to you if you made the “right” choice but are less happy as a result?
So if you are trying to maximize your happiness, you need to make the best decision that you can at the appropriate time and then move on and stop thinking about the other options.
In addition to the happiness implications, there is at least one study that has found that reversible decisions have a negative impact on your memory. The study found that in addition to having higher instances of regret and unhappiness in your decision, having the option to change your mind also results in “decreased working memory capacity.”
Essentially, because a part of your brain is still weighing the options, you have less ability to focus on the next task at hand. Again, it is best to make the best decision that you can at the time and then move on.
This is not to say that you should always make your decisions irreversible. If you find yourself fainting at the sight of blood, it might make sense to switch from your pre-med major. If you hate your new boss, go ahead and look for a different job.
Especially in lower-stakes decisions, though, it is important to know that there are major hidden costs to keeping your options open.