The Faded Affect Bias: Why Smart People Keep Doing Dumb Sh*t

This has happened to all of us more than we probably care to admit.

Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash

If you aren’t making any mistakes, you aren’t innovating. If you’re making the same mistakes, you aren’t learning. — Rick Warren

Myaunt should’ve left my uncle when she found out he cheated on her for the second time.

I was sixteen years old at the time and would listen to her always trash my uncle and the terrible way that he treated her.

I tried to be caring and empathetic, but this was the 50th time I felt like I was hearing this sob story, so it was rather hard for me to do so.

I told her that it didn’t make any sense for her to continue to allow him to do and say whatever he wanted and then give him a pass by always coming back after she stormed off and swore that she wouldn’t be with him ever again.

It had gotten to the point that it was rather comical with the rest of my family, as no one believe she was really ever going to stay gone.

The script was always the same.

They would get into a huge, heated argument about something. She would storm out saying how terrible of a human being he was and how she was going to find someone to treat her better.

She would stay gone for a month or two, maybe as long as even six months, but, in the end, she always came back and moved back in with him.

While I couldn’t understand the psychology of what was going on at that young adolescent stage in my life, now it makes so much sense.

What my aunt was experiencing was a phenomenon that I would venture almost every person in the world has gone through at some point and is typically at the crux of all relationships in which you wonder WHY are these two people together.

The effect is called the faded affect bias, and it keeps many people making the same dumb decisions although they KNOW better.

What is the faded affect bias?

Have you ever eaten/drank so much of something that was so good that you couldn’t stop eating until you made yourself sick? For me, this falls into the category of either banana pudding or cookies and ice cream.

As you are laying in bed sick from stuffing yourself because it was hard to bring yourself to stop, you find yourself thinking that you will NEVER eat/drink that much “whatever” again.

How much of a surprise is it when you find yourself in the exact same situation six months later when you ONCE AGAIN consume more than you should and are laying up sick, lamenting your decision to indulge again.

This is a result of the faded affect bias taking effect.

What this means is that we have a tendency to forget all the bad things about a situation the more we are removed from that situation with time.

In the event of your ice cream-induced belly ache, at the time of the overeating, you were clear on what you did wrong and understood what you could do to prevent this from happening in the future.

You had a clear vision of the steps you would do differently and even felt that you just wouldn’t eat ice cream at all to be safe.

However, as time progressed and you refrained from eating ice cream for six whole months, you forgot exactly how terrible you felt laying in the bed thinking you were possibly going to die.

Instead, the only thing you can remember is how good the ice cream tasted and how perfect it matched with those Publix Heath cookies (which are REALLY REALLY good, btw).

Due to the faded affect bias, our brain has the tendency to forget about all the bad parts of a previous situation and romanticize all the good parts. Even to the point of making the good points seem more amazing than they really were.

While the Heath cookies were good, they weren’t THAT good, but your brain is telling you otherwise.

How does this relate to decision-making in life?

We’ve all seen this with previous relationships when someone goes back to someone who is treating them badly.

We see the same thing in addicts who get away from a drug or alcohol for some time and seem out of the clear and then end up relapsing.

And that is part of the reason they end up relapsing. It’s because they are doing so good and are so far removed from all the negative effects of that action that their mind tricks them into thinking it wasn’t that bad, was it?

The mind is always so excited to get something that is pleasurable, when it doesn’t have something for some time, it ratchets up the remembered pleasurable effect of it.

It makes it seems like it was WAY better than what it was, as it desires for you to go back and give it that same pleasure.

At the same time, our brain has a tendency to block out negative memories from our minds.

This is part of the reason that people can’t remember traumatic things that they may have gone through, based on their brain’s decision to protect them from reliving them.

Couple these two things together, and you have a perfect storm that will cause people to continue to make the same decision over and over, even though they know it is more harmful to them in the long run.

How do you prevent this from happening?

There’s only one true simple way to prevent this from happening.

Most people know this, but it’s just easier said than done for a lot of people.

The surefire way to prevent the faded affect bias from guiding you in your decision-making is:

Not allow your decisions to be made based on emotions.

That’s it.

You have to always think logically when it comes to what you need to do and not focus on how you feel when you are debating what you should do.

Feelings are based on emotions and emotional decision-making will lead you astray from what you should do in most situations.

Your heart will tell you one thing (that’s the faded affect bias talking) while you’re brain will tell you something else.

Be mindful when you are making any decision based on how you’re feeling and truly walk through if it makes sense based on ALL the information you know and not just how you are feeling in the moment.

And while there’s no guarantee you still won’t do some dumb sh*t from time to time, at least you’ll know the science behind WHY you made such a bad decision if someone asks.