How Pain Warps Your Decision Making

Wretched by Piers Nye

An instinct to avoid immediate pain is something we never grow out of.

I do my very best to be in the presence of people who are much smarter than myself as often as possible. One such person, Jonathan Fass, recently posted an interesting thought on Facebook.

Paraphrasing a bit, he asks whether you’d rather have a fingernail torn off or get an unexpected punch in the stomach. He surmises most people would choose the punch – something I agree with. The pain of a blow to the stomach seems mild and temporary compared to the shudder inducing thought of having a nail torn off.

This is extremely irrational though. Tearing a fingernail off, while painful, is not extremely threatening outside of the ever present risk of infection to exposed tissue. A strike to the stomach on the other hand can be deadly. Outside of Jonathan’s example of Harry Houdini there are plenty of other examples of punches to the stomach causing internal bleeding and ruptured organs which are easily fatal.

Even with that information, I think a lot of people would still chance death to avoid the pain of having a fingernail removed. Ask your followers and see. This kind of behavior isn’t just limited to physical pain though, and that’s where it starts to ruin your decision making.

The Power of Pain Avoidance

I’ve written before about some of the mental traps we fall into that stop us from making better decisions. One of the bigger ones is this instinctual inclination to avoid pain and discomfort at all costs.

In studies people have been found to be more motivated by the avoidance of pain than the gain of pleasure. We see this at play in the way a lot of companies structure advertisements and promotions – people are more likely to act in order to avoid losing $5 than they are in order to gain $5.

This is essentially the same type of thinking that leads us to instinctively make the choice above of taking less painful but potentially lethal damage than an extremely painful wound with little chance of permanent damage.

It may seem abstract when talking about it in terms of choosing between a punch and losing a fingernail, but we apply it to every kind of pain and that’s where we get in trouble.

Non-Physical Pain

Imagine these things: quitting a stable but unfulfilling job to pursue a dream, asking out a guy/girl you’ve had a crush on for a long time, talking to strangers in a foreign language in order to learn, and sticking to a strict weightlifting program.

What do all of them have in common?

They all take resolve and willpower to do, because they all have the potential to cause discomfort and they all have an easy out.

It’s scary to quit your job to chase your dream because of the potential for failure and all the perceived pain and discomfort that will come with it. It’s easy to never go talk to that guy or girl to avoid the emotional pain of being rejected. You might decide not to practice a foreign language with someone because of the potential for making painfully embarrassing mistakes. Plenty of people put off working out because of the amount of discomfort they expect it to cause.

This makes no sense.

Like the fingernail and the punch, choosing the option that avoids the potential for immediate discomfort leads to situations with the potential for more severe or long lasting damage.

Sure, it would be uncomfortable right now to drag yourself out of a warm bed extra early and go strain and struggle to get a lifting session in before work. The less painful option right now would be to say ‘screw it’, stay in bed and get some extra sleep.

In ten years though when you’ve got 30 extra pounds hanging of of you, when you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, further down the road when you have a massive heart attack, was that worth another 30 minutes in bed?

This follows for the other examples too. Is living the rest of your life stuck in a miserable job worth avoiding the potential pain of failing on your first attempt to pursue your dreams?

Is never learning that language you’ve been wanting to learn for however long and missing out on all the experiences and benefits that come along with it worth not facing the immediate pain of an embarrassing mistake or two?

In all of these cases choosing to ignore your instinctual drive to avoid the immediate pain leads to a worse outcome than accepting the immediate discomfort for longer term benefits.

So how do you avoid falling into this way of thinking?

Taking a Step Back

Some people may be tempted to conclude that the best thing then is to go in the opposite direction and always choose the course of action that leads to the most immediate discomfort. Beyond leading to rhabdo stricken Crossfitters this kind of thinking is likely to lead you into as many bad decisions as the opposite way of thinking. The trick is learning not to think in absolutes, but to take a step back and rationally evaluate the potential outcomes on a case by case basis.

Here are a few tips on how you can do that.

  • List Worst Case Scenarios – I recommend a similar tactic when addressing the fear of failure. Sit and write down the absolute worst case scenarios you could foresee coming from each choice. Chances are you’ll find that one of them is not nearly as bad as the other – that’s the choice you should probably make.

  • Get a Second Opinion – If you know your decision making is likely to be biased or compromised, take yourself out of it as much as possible.

    While your bias toward avoiding immediate discomfort will skew your decisions other people are not affected by this bias in regards to making decisions for you. If I’m in a position where I know I’m likely to make bad decisions out of my inclination to avoid something I find uncomfortable I’ll have Caroline consider it and see if her decision differs from mine and why. That way I have an objective viewpoint to help me pick what would be best for me in the long run, not just right this minute.

    Have someone you trust critique your decision whenever you find yourself making it on instinct or feel like your rational thinking might be compromised.

The important thread through both of these is doing what you can to take a step back and be as objective as possible in your decision making. When you understand that you’re likely to make bad decisions based on pain avoidance it’s easier to take deliberate steps to correct it.

Do you have any other tips for correcting or mitigating the effects of this particular bias? Help everyone out and share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Piers Nye

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com