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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 02-Jun-13


Sunday 02-June-13

To hell with it

Have you ever been feeling rather grumpy when you had to make an important decision? The chances were that the quality of your choice would not be quite as good as if you had decided when you were feeling a little more cheerful. In fact there's a good chance you thought (or even said) something along the lines of 'To hell with it' and then took a decision that included the acceptance of a lot more risk than you might usually prefer.

Why do we do this? When we are in a bad mood, we tend to use more control, perhaps as a way to make us feel better. We order people about rather than ask. We may try a bit of retail therapy. We also avoid more difficult tasks and so may make a decision quickly just in order to get the discomfort of choice over and done with. And taking risks is not always associated with negative mood as we are more likely to make risky decisions if we are feeling positive, although this time it could be the optimism that is creating the bias.

Researcher Thomas Webb and colleagues tried out a way of fixing this problem for the grumpy condition, which is basically to make firm 'if...then...' decisions in advance. They started with a trick anagram that made some of their subjects grumpy. This was followed by a scenario task where they could take several levels of risk. Some of the subjects had been asked to try to stay in a positive mood while others had been asked to do 'if...then...' task of  thinking 'If I am in a negative mood, then I will ... breathe deeply / think only positive thoughts / think how I've dealt successfully with previous situations'. Both groups had been asked to think about this a week before, with three repetitions during the week.

The interesting results were that those who had done the 'if...then...' thinking did not make any riskier decisions than a control group, while those who just tried to be positive succumbed to the risk-taking. The pattern repeated itself in a gambling task, where the programmed thinking was 'If I am asked to make a bet, then I will pay close attention to the number of red versus blue boxes'.

This aligns with business risk management, where we consider the bad things that may happen and, if we can't stop them, we make contingency plans and do what we can to be prepared, rather than try to handle the issue on the fly. Running businesses by the seat of your pants is generally considered poor management, especially if the business is big and issues are expensive.

In general, this 'if...then...' thinking gives us a simple and useful way of avoiding (or at least perhaps reducing) the bias caused by our emotions.

Webb T.L., Sheeran P., Totterdell P., Miles E., Mansell W., and Baker S. (2011). Using implementation intentions to overcome the effect of mood on risky behaviour, British Journal of Social Psychology, 51, 2, 330-345

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