The Problem with Bad Decisions (and Good Ones Too!)

November 9, 2020

As kids, we’re encouraged to make “good” decisions and resist “bad” ones. “Bad” decisions lead to consequences and punishment, such as revoked privileges, groundings, or being verbally chastised. Meanwhile, “good” decisions result in praise, reward, and permission to do desired activities. This concept continues from childhood to adolescence and often into adulthood.

However, there’s a problem when we identify a behavior or decision as “bad,” and it’s the same problem when it’s “good.”

Good and bad establish a binary state for options and ignore other ways to analyze situations. When the only options are good and bad, the assumption is that one option must be positive and the other negative – ignoring that there might be more than two options, more than one good or bad option, or options that might be neither good nor bad. In addition, identifying beliefs about a decision before it’s made can influence our behavior as that choice is executed, which alters our opinion (typically toward confirming our hypothesis).

If rather than looking at options as a binary state we consider them on a spectrum, we account for varying degrees of positive and negative and recognize that few options are all good or all bad. Consider the example of choosing a college class. The positives might be that it’s an interesting topic and previous students praise the level of learning; however, it might demand large amounts of reading and numerous challenging assignments. Conversely, a class might be boring, feature a less-than-stellar professor, and be early in the morning, but it nonetheless fulfills a core requirement to graduate at the end of the semester. The spectrum approach creates a more realistic mindset that few things in life are all good or all bad, and rather there are pros and cons to most options. We then choose the “best” one while acknowledging that the best decision can change with time and circumstances.

Taking into account principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we can examine options as simply what they are – options. Not good, not bad, just options. Consider choosing what to eat for dinner. If a person likes both Chinese and Italian food and is deciding which to have, then each choice is simply an option and the individual can be curious about the meal. This might include being open to a bad experience or a new dish at a favorite location, or perhaps a new place altogether. Similarly, a person can choose to wear a blue shirt or a red shirt on a given day. Given that both are in the closet, it’s relatively safe to assume the person likes both. Neither option is good or bad, but wise versus unwise might come into play based on the weather or intended activities for the day. ACT encourages this curiosity and invites us to be open-minded during the experience. By eliminating the risk of a “wrong” decision, we’re more likely to take chances, be open to learning, or try something new. This openness allows for the brain to be more creative, and it removes arbitrary boundaries (which are often self-imposed) that inherently come from the strict classification of decisions.

Although the outcome might not be the desired one, the outcome itself is the disappointment rather than the potential risk-taking of choosing something different. A decision is a choice made with the information we have at the time. It’s based on a presumed or hopeful outcome. However, “good” decisions don’t guarantee preferred outcomes; rather, a good decision (hopefully) increases the likelihood of a preferred outcome. Driving on a route that includes the freeway might usually be faster than side streets, but if there’s a lot of traffic it could result in a longer drive than anticipated. A person might buy a gift for a child’s birthday only to arrive at the party and see that someone else already purchased the same gift. Again, these might be well-considered decisions, but there’s no way to guarantee the outcome.

All that said, then, here’s the real question: what might you try if you knew that there couldn’t make bad decision?