Why Changing Your Mind Hurts

Do past decisions still haunt you?  Does it seem that if you hadn’t changed your mind about past events, things might’ve been different – such as choosing that other job or marrying that former boyfriend?

Well did you know that changing our minds almost always makes us feel uncomfortable anyway?

In fact, changing our minds hurts regardless of the outcome. Chances are high that the decisions you made were probably good, and better than the original ones,  but yet you are still burdened with regret.

“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.

But why is this? First, let’s take a look at a study put forward by Kirkebøen.

The Study

Kirkebøen and other researchers challenged 109 volunteers to a game of “Offers and Regrets”.

All participants played interactively against a computer which was programmed to simulate real life situations.

In the game, a player is awarded a sum of money and has to suggest a fair way of splitting it with a virtual recipient. If the recipient accepts the offer, both cash out with the agreed sums.

Only half of the participants were given the choice of changing their minds after their proposals.

As expected, the study found that the players that changed their initial proposal regretted their final choice more so than those who didn’t.

The same happened in two other experiments. Participants who changed their minds were far more likely to report post-outcome regret than those who didn’t, regardless of the outcome.

So why does it hurt?

Kirkebøen suggests two theories on why changing our minds makes us uncomfortable.

First: Several studies have shown that individuals tend to focus more on what they have lost than gained.

Second: Individuals who change their minds probably consider a larger amount of choices prior to making their decision than people who stick to their original decision. Kirkebøen says that it hurts a lot more when you have 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.”

Another reason why people feel regret when they change their mind can also be explained by Daniel Gilbert’s theory on why people make bad decisions.  He explains, using Bernoulli’s formula,  that when people make bad decisions, they make TWO kinds of errors when deciding on the right thing to do:

1. Odds of gain: Our chances of success.

2. Value of gain: Our beliefs about what will make us happy.

People often over or under estimate the probability of getting what they want. Likewise, they do the same with how valuable the gain will be once they get it.

An example of over-estimating the ‘odds of gain’ is playing the lottery. The odds are roughly 1-170 million that you will win. These odds of winning the lottery are so minuscule that you are far more likely to  get rich from starting your own business.

In the Kirkeboen experiment, the participants who changed their minds underestimated  the ‘odds of gain’ of their original choice, and thought that they could come out with a better deal if they changed their decision.

They also over-estimated the ‘value of gain’. Apparently, they thought that changing their decisions would lead to a happier outcome. As a result, the value of the second choice, even if it was better, was lessened by their feeling of regret.

“Unchangeable” decisions bring more satisfaction

Based on these studies, people who stick to their first decisions are more satisfied with their choices than those who changed their minds.

What does all this mean?

None of this means that you shouldn’t second guess your choices if you are not sure of them. For example, If you are unsure of the answers on a test, don’t go with your ‘gut feeling’. It is perfectly fine to review your answers as long as you’ve given them serious thought. The same applies to life decisions . If you later feel some regret even when the outcomes are good, just remember not to take this feeling too seriously.

Remind yourself that this is normal and part of how the human mind works, which always has a way of playing subtle tricks on us.



Gilbert, D. Why We Make Bad Decisions. Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_researches_happiness.html. Accessed October 14, 2012.

Kirkebøen, G.,  Vasaasen, E., Teigen, K. H. Revisions and Regret: The Cost of Changing your Mind. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. 2011. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bdm.756/abstract. Accessed October 14, 2012.

Author: Alejandro Adrian LeMon, Ph.D., LMHC

A little about me... I'm a licensed mental health counselor in the state of Florida and the founder of Psychology One. I am also a former college instructor of sociology and I have worked at several not-for-profit agencies & EAP organizations. I currently live with my fiancee and our three cats.

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