Every so often, in discussions about student success and retention, a frustrated faculty member will say, “They are adults. They need to make adult decisions.”
Now, I’m certainly in favor of students taking responsibility for their own learning. However, research pretty clearly shows that being an adult has no correlation with making better decisions. In fact, there now seems to be a small mini-genre of books that investigate our human tendency to make bad decisions. (Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and, most recently, Decisive by brothers Chip and Dan Heath.)
The Heath brothers do a nice job of summing up the research on the various types of bad decisions we make and why. While they often focus on business, the same sort of mistakes plague our own lives as well. We buy cars we can’t afford because we become convinced we can’t have a good life without heated seat warmers. We stay in bad relationships too long or end good ones too soon. We yell at our bosses, send stupid emails, or complain so often that we can’t get traction when an important issue arises. We stay in bed instead of exercising. We super-size our orders at the drive-thru. We don’t save enough for retirement.
If you think none of this applies to you, then think about the bad decisions of people you know. (One of the problems in making good decisions is that we often see other people’s problems clearly while we have whole layers of intentions and defenses surrounding our own.)
So what hinders our decision-making ability? According to the experts, there are several reasons:
- We tend to limit ourselves too soon. Many of us think in quick two-choice options. Should I fire this employee or not? Should I go to Italy or save money? Should I stay in bed or go to class?
- We are mired in the confirmation bias. We tend to search out information that conforms to our views and ignore that which contradicts them.
- We focus on the short-term results. The alarm goes off. It feels much better to stay in bed (immediate positive result) than getting up and going to class. (After all, that consequence, if any, is weeks away.) Or we might avoid doing something because “we’ll die of embarrassment.” Short-term fears trumps long-term benefits.
- We are overconfident about our correctness.
- We get blindsided when factors change.
And we’re all vulnerable to these thinking errors, whether we’re a beginning student or a seasoned CEO (or professor). When it comes to decision-making, students are adults. It’s just that adults often don’t make great decisions.