Does the option to reverse a decision really make us happy?
Return policies, temporary contracts, cancellation insurances…they all allow us to change our minds about choices we’ve made. We tend to expect that the option to reverse will yield optimal decision outcomes, but research shows this is not always true.
A few years ago I arrived in an idyllic village in Austria for a skiing holiday with friends. After months of planning, the time had finally come. Until then, I had always rented my gear at the local rental store. This year, however, I brought my own brand-new skis that I had purchased back home during the low-season sale. I hoped I had chosen the right skis, especially as I would not be able to bring them back to the store anymore. As for my boots, I had decided to buy them at our holiday destination. This would give me the chance to buy a pair of boots, try them out for a couple of days, and, if not entirely satisfied, change them for a different pair. A perfect deal, I reckoned!
Like me, almost all individuals have a preference for reversible decisions. We like to have the opportunity to change our minds at a later point in time as this gives us a sense of freedom and security. As such, we tend to provide temporary (rather than permanent) contracts to new employees, live together with our romantic partners for years before getting married, and buy products at full price that we can return to the store rather than products that are on sale but cannot be returned.
But what are actually the consequences of such reversible decisions? Is it indeed better to have the opportunity to change our minds, or would we in fact be better off finalizing our decisions as quickly as possible?
In several studies, my colleagues and I examined the consequences of reversible versus irreversible decision-making and showed that the opportunity to reverse a decision actually leads to lower levels of post-choice satisfaction. It turns out that the option to reverse a decision makes us focus on those aspects of the choice alternatives that actually decrease our satisfaction with our decision. That is, we focus on the negative aspects of the chosen alternative (Indeed I had spent my whole holiday wondering whether my boots were perhaps a little on the small side after all), and the positive aspects of the rejected alternative (indeed I had been thinking about the flexibility of the other, non-chosen, boots). If a decision is immediately final, however, we do exactly the opposite: we focus on the positive aspects of the chosen alternative and the negative aspects of the rejected alternative. In other words, when a decision is irreversible, we focus on those aspects of the decision that potentially increase choice satisfaction (my skis were indeed perfect: good shape and length, and easy to handle…).
Apparently, the option to reverse a decision focuses people’s attention on those aspects of the decision alternatives that have a negative impact on choice satisfaction. These findings are especially interesting in light of the fact that people tend not to change their minds. This reluctance to change is probably due to decision-makers already experiencing a sense of ownership of the object they originally chose. Exchanging this object for another will then feel like a loss, which people generally try to avoid.
All in all, though we like having the freedom to change our minds, we tend not to use it even if we’re not entirely satisfied. So my advice would be: finalize your decisions as quickly as possible and be happy!