The Ease of Bad Decisions

I have made some very poor choices over the course of my life. I imagine everyone feels the same way, and it’s likely a justified feeling. (Just being honest here, folks.) Yet somehow, it’s still easy to look at the bad decisions other people are making and marvel at how in the world they’re able to make such choices when the “right answer” is so clear. More than that: people continue to make bad decisions even after they’re given the choice to stop making them. They persist in those decisions, instead. Why is that?

As I’ve thought about the problem, I’ve come up with a few explanations. First of all, I don’t believe anyone just makes a bad choice, knowing it’s a bad choice, just because they want to make a bad choice. Instead, everyone I’ve talked to, and all the bad choices I can think of in my own life, all indicate people have reasons for the choices they make. Reasons that seem to justify the bad choice at the time. It reminds me of a quote from Arrested Development. Tobias, failed therapist, is talking to his wife about potential solutions for their rocky marriage:

Tobias: You know, Lindsay, as a therapist, I have advised a number of couples to explore an open relationship where the couple remains emotionally committed, but free to explore extra-marital encounters.

Lindsay: Well, did it work for those people?

Tobias: No, it never does. I mean, these people somehow delude themselves into thinking it might, but … But it might work for us.

We’re all like Tobias at times. We acknowledge that something almost never works for anyone else, and then we turn around and decide it’ll probably work for us. We’re the exception, after all, because we each know how exceptional we really are.

But beyond that, we make bad decisions (and continue to make them) because they’re so easy to make. Some of this is because we’ve unintentionally trained ourselves to believe otherwise. In the movies, bad decisions are accompanied by ominous music. Time seems to slow down. They’re portrayed as fundamentally different than other decisions. Often they have fairly immediate repercussions. So surely if we were to approach making an epically bad decision in real life, the same things would happen. There’d be a way of realizing we’re about to really mess up.

Except that’s not how it works. There’s not even a virtual speed bump. Ruining a friendship, saying a horrible thing, betraying a trust: all of these happen as easily as swatting a fly. One moment it’s alive, and the next it’s dead, and the world keeps right on spinning.

Once we’ve made a bad decision of that magnitude, other bad decisions often follow as we try to shield ourselves from any fallout from that decision. We begin to justify the choice. “That person didn’t really deserve my trust, after all.” “It wasn’t that bad.” “I’ll never do it again.” “As long as no one finds out . . .”

In this way, life is a lot like a complex board game state. At the beginning of a game, choices are easy because there aren’t a lot of ramifications you need to think through when you make a decision. But once those decisions are all in play, and they’re mixed around with decisions other people have been making, then anything you do can affect and be affected by all sorts of other factors. Bad decisions have a tendency to spiral out of control as you try to shield yourself from the consequences of those decisions.

The flippant answer is “Just don’t make bad decisions,” but my post today is mainly a reminder that we all make bad choices, and one of the best ways I have to handle other people’s bad decisions is to remind myself of that fact and remember the times I’ve made mistakes of my own. That can in turn inspire me to be a bit more forgiving of other people’s mistakes, just as I would hope people would be forgiving of mine.


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