The cost of changing your mind

April 6, 2012 - 06:00

People tend to be less satisfied with a decision if they arrived at it after changing their minds – even if the outcome is the same.

Changing one’s mind seems to come with a cost, even when one ends up with favourable outcomes. (Photo: Colourbox)

There is a popular notion that your gut feeling is more often right than wrong. Some think for example that going with the gut feeling in a multiple choice test, will give better scores.

But the stack of studies contradicting this notion is tall, and researchers have dubbed the belief the first instinct fallacy.

This is because revising answers on tests tend to improve scores, and decision reversals as a rule help to improve decisions.

And yet, changing our minds is uncomfortable – it seems like we are designed to be stubborn.

“We feel a stronger sense of regret if we end up with a wrong answer after changing it from a right one, compared with choosing the wrong answer in the first place and sticking to it,” says researcher Geir Kirkebøen.

Changing your mind seems to come with a cost, even when you end up with favourable outcomes.

To test how we feel after changing our minds, Kirkebøen and his colleagues had testees playing games designed to capture real-life decision-making situations.

A game of offers and regrets 

In one of the games a player receives a sum of money that is to be shared with another. The first player, also called the proposer, suggests a way of splitting the sum, and if the receiver accepts the deal, both parties cash out with the agreed sums.

But if the receiver rejects the deal, both of them leave empty-handed. The incentive is to offer the other player a deal that seems fair, or at least fair enough to be accepted.

In Kirkebøen’s study, the receiver was replaced by a computer which was programmed to respond to the participant’s proposal in the same way as people typically would in the original game.

One hundred and nine students volunteered to participate in the study, knowing that they could win a gift certificate.

The value of the certificate depended on how much money they managed to keep in the experiment.

Half of the participants were given the chance to change their minds after their initial proposal, while the other half could not.

Both groups were told to rate their post-outcome regret on their final proposal, after it was disclosed whether the computer rejected or accepted the deal. They were also asked to rate their regret one week after the game.

Kirkebøen and his colleagues found that those who had changed their initial proposal regretted their final choice more than those who could change their minds, but stuck to their original choice anyway.

Why it hurts

Similar patterns were found in two other experimental games with resembling features.

Kirkebøen explains that in all the experiments, those who changed their minds reported much stronger post-outcome regret than those who stayed put, even if the final outcomes were equally good or even better.

He argues that changing one’s mind seems to affect the evaluation of the end result, and that it has a cost, regardless of what the final outcome is.

Kirkebøen says the decision reversal regrets found in the study cannot be explained by factors like differences in outcomes, cognitive effort put into the decision-making process, gender, or the participants’ tendency to regret or maximize.

Instead, he suggests two possible causes for why it hurts.

First, only those who change their minds will have an explicit forgone alternative, which they can imagine would have resulted in an even better outcome. Several studies have indicated that we tend to focus on what we lost more than what we’ve gained. This can explain the regret people feel after giving up their initial choice.

Second, people who change their minds have probably considered and compared a larger amount of alternatives than those who stick to their original choice. Kirkebøen says that having many options sometimes mean having too many options.

“If you’re going to buy a bottle of wine and pick the same bottle out of a selection of three bottles, and a larger selection of 100 bottles, we know that you’ll tend to be more satisfied if the bottle is taken from the small selection,” he says. “There’s a lot more to regret if you turn down 99 bottles, and not just two.”

Unchangeable decisions give more satisfaction

In a much quoted study, American researchers Daniel Gilbert and Jane EJ Ebert found that people mistakenly prefer to make changeable decisions rather than unchangeable because they do not realise that they may be more satisfied with the latter.

According to Kirkebøen their study gives an additional reason for avoiding changeable decisions. If you are allowed to change your mind, you may be tempted to make use of this opportunity - and that comes with a price.

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