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Why Changing Your Decision Can Feel Like Failure, Even When It’s the Most Responsible Thing To Do

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Korin MillerJuly 27, 2020

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If you had previously drawn a line in the sand, only to change your mind years, weeks, or even days later, and you feel…off about doing so, you’re not alone. Making decisions can be hard under the best of circumstances, but it’s especially tough now. In light of the pandemic, not much about the world is certain and yet the implications of making certain decisions carry life-and-death-level weight. But while changing your decision upon learning new information is certainly possible, the process can even stir up feelings of discomfort, guilt, or even failure. What’s up with that?

“It is more difficult for people to make decisions when information is uncertain and changing,” says Jennifer Trueblood, PhD, a psychologist whose research focuses on decision-making. “That said, people have the ability to adapt to new information and change their beliefs.”

Dr. Trueblood says she’s seen this adaptability in action in her research work and also in response to the pandemic. After certain states started reopening in May, she and her colleagues at Vanderbilt University (where she is a professor) in Nashville saw a large increase in people’s willingness to go out in public, eat at restaurants, and get their hair cut. But once the number of virus cases started to spike again in various places, with some states re-entering quarantine, that willingness to and comfort with resuming “normal” life dropped off.

But being open from the outset to changing your decision upon learning new information or accepting that your situation has cshifted can help relieve the negative feelings that can come with conflate a “change of plans” and “a lapse in forethought.”

When this is especially tough, though, is when you dedicated time, thought, and effort to making certain big-picture decisions in the first place and then need to change course. Whether the choice in question was whom to include in your quarantine bubble, how many total people to include, whether you feel okay to see immunocompromised and aging loved ones, or anything else, the time and mental energy dedicated to making that initial decision can make reversing your decision even tougher, says clinical psychiatrist Jeremy Tyler, PsyD.

But, do know that humans are resilient and are biologically equipped to weather this internal conflict. And furthermore, learning to adapt and change based on new information actually makes you responsible and conscientious—not a flip-flopper.

You’re biologically equipped for changing your decision (even when it’s tough)

“Our cognitive systems are designed to adapt to new information,” Dr. Trueblood says. “This is how we learn, and how we can make good decisions on the fly.” She compares making decisions (and re-decisions) to changing lanes on a highway. “At first, the lane looks clear, but then another car swoops in from the other side. In order to avoid a collision, you must be able to rapidly process the new information and change your course of action,” she says. And, here’s the thing: Your mind can handle the surprise navigation.

“Our cognitive systems are designed to adapt to new information. This is how we learn, and how we can make good decisions on the fly.” —psychologist Jennifer Trueblood, PhD

“We’ve evolved as people to try to answer uncertainty, but our brains are not designed to like uncertainty,” Dr. Tyler says. “As a result, our brains have evolved to become pretty efficient at coming to a decision to try to get rid of that uncertainty.” That doesn’t guarantee the decisions you make will be the best or most accurate—it’s just your mind’s way of trying to get rid of uncertainty and push forward.

Though the decisions you make aren’t guaranteed to be the best available, deviating from plan A is often difficult because you naturally want to believe you know what’s best. “Once we’ve reached a conclusion in our brain, it’s actually pretty difficult to change,” Dr. Tyler says. “Psychologically, if you are acknowledging that you are going to change a decision, in a way it might feel like you’re admitting fault or error.” That, he adds says, “can feel like a threat to your own identity and can put this question on yourself of, ‘What does this say about me?’”

There’s also something known as confirmation bias—that is, seeing what it is that you’re looking for—that comes into play here. “This bias describes the human tendency to search for and interpret information in a way that is consistent with one’s current beliefs,” Dr. Trueblood says. Basically, once you make a decision, you’ll go out of your way to prove yourself right, even when there’s evidence to suggest your decision may not be the absolute best one for you. But, owning up to the reality that you’d be better served by changing your decision doesn’t make you indecisive or weak—it reflects that you’re a critical thinker who is open-minded and responsible.

How to be more flexible with your decisions

It’s crucial to remind yourself when you make a decision that you absolutely have the right to change your mind. Also recognize that you may be making the best decision for right now, that choice may not be the best one down the road, because circumstances change. “When information and data changes, it is rational to change your beliefs,” Dr. Trueblood says.

To protect yourself from roadblocks that can get in the way of feeling empowered to change your mind—like confirmation bias—she recommends regularly seeking out reliable information. Then, “be willing to acknowledge that this information might go against your current beliefs.” You can also challenge yourself to consider the way in which you make decisions and change your mind in a different way. “Think about it as an opportunity for evolving, learning more and learning something new,” Dr. Tyler says.

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