Behavioral Psychology

Why People Act Against Their Best Interests

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If what felt unpleasant in the moment always led to unpleasant, unwanted consequences far down the line and what felt pleasant in the moment always led to pleasant, wanted consequences far down the line then most people would live healthy, happy lives.

Unfortunately delayed consequences are often diametrically opposed to felt consequences in the moment, like enjoying fast food now and dealing with high cholesterol and other health problems later, or unloading anger on someone now and dealing with a fractured relationship later.

The problem is that we, along with all other organisms, evolved to behave in order to survive on a moment by moment basis. Actions that will help you later mean nothing and are in fact counterproductive if these actions endanger your survival now. Of course there are plenty of examples of organisms behaving in ways that will help them later, like squirrels gathering nuts for the winter, but they’re not planning in the way that humans think of planning but rather enacting instinctive hardwired behaviors cued off by immediate changes to contingencies of reinforcement in the environment. And anyway in the natural world immediacy always trump far off concerns. They’re both important but immediacy is king.

In the modern human world far off concerns often trump immediacy since our survival is rarely on the line in daily interactions with the environment like it was in our prehistoric past. That’s the dilemma. All organisms are sensitive to changes in the environment and in themselves right at or around the time of a behavior. When these changes are reinforcing we can expect so see an increase in the frequency of that behavior .

From the behavioral point of view the reason people act against their best interests is not that they’re crazy or masochistic but because they’re unable to break free of their innate programming telling them that if their behavior leads to reinforcing consequences right now then that behavior must be in their best interests. They believe they are acting in their best interests when they’re not because they’re not taking deferred consequences into account.