Why are my decisions so Inconsistent or Random? [explanation]

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Emotions affect decisions, but there is another hidden influence from the body’s baseline arousal that we cannot estimate or predict, so we change our decisions without understanding why. That’s the hot-cold empathy gap. You can reduce inconsistency by testing your decisions in 2 different bodily states.

Suppose you want pizza. You order in, start Netflix, and when it arrives, you no longer want it. Why does that happen?

Similar situations occur while choosing dating partners, jobs, housing, restaurants, or any consumer product. If you are struggling with being consistent with your decisions and don’t want them to change with every new detail you come across, you are probably experiencing the hot-cold empathy gap.

The hot-cold empathy gap

The hot-cold empathy gap explains how we are heavily influenced by our emotional and physical status in making decisions, and when that status changes, our decisions change, making us inconsistent and unreliable. Different biological states like hunger, thirst, heat exhaustion, satisfaction, cold, and even jittery-ness will influence decisions differently, making decisions seem inconsistent or random.

This is also why a cup of coffee or room temperature or a full meal suddenly makes us change our minds. In some cases, this change of mind is good because it can prevent us from making bad decisions. But this article is more about consistent and inconsistent decisions, not good or bad decisions.

We have 2 bodily arousal states: A hot state and a cold state. A hot state is where our emotions have high arousal and our desires are strong. A cold state is where our emotions are calm and our physical needs are satisfied.

🥵Hot states are anger, pain, hunger, excited, tired (high arousal body)
🥶Cold states are calm, satisfied, low-key (low arousal body)

The hot-cold empathy gap[1]: a hot body state affects decisions differently from a cold state, and we underestimate its influence on our choices. We then fail to predict how we (or others) would choose in a different state. That failure to predict preferences creates inconsistency in our decision-making. You may think you want pizza because it’s epic, but you might be wanting it because of low blood sugar. And then, the next time you crave salads.

The hot or cold state is an unrelated factor that influences our preferences. So to stay consistent with your decisions and be less “flaky,” find strong reasons for that decision that clearly bypass your “hot state” and a “cold state.” Otherwise, your decision is influenced by unrelated biological factors.

We show this hot-cold empathy gap for 2 very unintuitive reasons.

  1. We can’t accurately estimate how our body’s state affects decisions. It happens at a very biological level causing minute changes to attention and what it selects for further processing. We misattribute the source of emotions to the wrong cause and then we rationalize decisions based on that misattribution. For example, hunger might make you avoid a certain purchase but you may rationalize it by thinking the product itself is giving bad vibes.
  2. We can’t estimate what our preferences would be in a hot state when we are in a cold state, and vice versa. So if we are exhausted, our decisions will feel a certain way, but we can’t estimate how we will feel about the same decision when we wake up fully rested and energized.

The hot-cold empathy gap[2] states that we don’t acknowledge the influence of hot states like hunger and cold states like being full on our preferences/decisions and we fail to predict how we could feel in a different state. Moreover, we overestimate how stable our preferences/decisions are in both states thinking our choices will remain the same no matter what. So we end up thinking our choices are correct and steady, but they aren’t the moment our state changes.

For example, one might say they love classical music during a cold state, like drowsiness after a good meal. However, they may conclude they love rock music during a hot state when they are socially energetic. But during the hot or cold state, they might overestimate their preferences, saying, “I’m a huge classical fan, I listen to it so much,” when, in fact, they are typically a pop music listener.

Brain-imaging research[3] shows that people are likely to pay more to avoid a “pain” when they are in an emotionally hot state where they have to make an immediate purchase. When they think in hypotheticals, they are likely to pay much lesser. So when it comes to a person’s readiness to make decisions, there is a hot-cold empathy gap and the gap widens when they are actually in a situation where they have to make a decision.

You may underestimate how much you are willing to pay or sacrifice for a decision when you are in a cold state. And suddenly your mind will change and be willing to pay more if you are confronted with that choice. For example, you may believe you will pay only $10 for a bottle of water when you are not thirsty and want a good supply of water for a trekking trip. But you would more easily pay $30 when you are on a trek and thirsty.

Emotions have a powerful influence on decisions and their stability[4], but the route emotions take is often indirect. First, let’s take a direct approach. You may want a product because it makes you feel good – like pretty clothing. This is a direct emotional effect. But there is an indirect route too. Your body’s visceral state (its biological arousal) will create a layer of emotion unrelated to the product you want. This visceral state will influence your desire for the product over and above the emotion created by the product. Your body influences your desires, wants, and needs in ways you cannot predict when that influence is absent.

Many stable decisions come from the direct route – emotions created by the thing you want. Many unstable decisions come from the indirect route. So for stable decisions, you may want to ensure the indirect route doesn’t have a strong influence. The indirect route is, more precisely, coming from visceral drives (and not the emotion per see) such as physical pain, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, nervousness, sexual arousal, relaxation, etc. The drives then create an emotion that solidifies your decisions.

Social hot-cold empathy gap

There is another layer to the hot-cold empathy gap – a social context. We find it harder to relate to someone in a neutral or cold state when we are in a hot state. If the emotional state of 2 people isn’t the same, we find it harder to relate. And we also discount the impact these states have on our and others’ decisions. For example, we may make bad decisions about a relationship when a partner or a friend is in a different hot state due to stress from a major life event. You may conclude that they made decisions that don’t favor you because of some other problem in the relationship, but in reality, that decision may come from the hot state of anger or frustration from that life event.

In social and interpersonal scenarios, the hot-cold empathy gap manifests the same way. What you agree to in a cold state will be very different from what you agree to in a hot state. Let’s say, as a couple, you set boundaries and make relationship decisions in a calm and composed manner. Those boundaries and decisions will feel very odd during stress. Since we can’t predict our preferences in different states, we fail to make decisions that satisfactorily apply to different states. So a couple who makes calm decisions about what happens during a stressful period will not adequately estimate how things will go when they are actually stressed. Those boundaries and rules will feel invalid. So behavior based on those decisions will appear inconsistent.

Examples of inconsistent decisions you might regret

  • You want to buy a $3000 smart fridge. You are in a hot state, hungry, and very consumption-oriented. You make a rash decision and order it. But after you eat and enter a cold state, you regret your decision. 
  • You are hyper-excited and want to go out with friends. Your friends are not available. You get upset. You express emotions strongly and lash out at them. If you were not excited, you probably would not be upset and not regret lashing out. 
  • You are very calm while discussing a large project. You think you have it in control. You wait and start last minute. You realize you do not have anything under control and show physical signs of stress. You blame a bad boss/manager and resign. You waste 3 months job hunting and regret leaving. 

We fail to acknowledge the influence of bodily arousal on our decisions.

Overcoming the hot-cold empathy gap (before-after method)

So what’s the trick behind making consistent decisions? You commit to a decision only after it has passed a hot-cold test. That means you solidify your decision and preferences, especially the ones that make a big change in your life after you have thought of the decision before and after biological changes caused by physical needs and emotions. This way, your decision will be less impulsive according to your hot/cold state and more consistent across many hot-cold states.

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You test your decision’s stability across different moods and bodily states by checking your choices before and after significant biological events.

Method: You are making a big decision and want to know if it is reasonably stable as per all the information you currently have. Ask yourself “Do I want this?” or “Do I prefer this and not that” before and after you:

  1. Poop
  2. Eat/drink
  3. Sleep
  4. Have a sexual release
  5. Exercise
  6. Bathe
  7. Laugh
  8. Play
  9. Work for hours
  10. Netflix binge

Ensure your decisions remain the same before and after the biological events because they change your hot/cold state. Since the hot-cold empathy gap is a failure to predict how your body affects decisions, it’s best to take care of bodily functions and see if the decision changes. If it changes, your decision is unstable. If it doesn’t it is stable.

Bottom line: To make stable decisions, ensure the decision remains the same under different levels of bodily arousal. So your reasoning for the decision should be less affected by your changeable emotional or physical state.

Example: “Sleeping over it” helps in making stable decisions because it tests the effect of a hot or cold bodily status on your reasoning. When you wake up, you are emotionally less aroused. You are likely to finish a meal and feel satisfied. You’ll then know if still feel good about your decision.

Think of “Buridan’s Ass”. Budiran’s Ass is a hypothetical donkey who is equally thirsty and hungry and placed exactly midway between hay and water. Some people think the donkey will make no decision and die of hunger or thirst. However, the hot-cold empathy gap offers a different solution. Both states – hunger or thirst – are visceral hot states which have a unique influence on decision-making. One of them will be more powerful at some point in time. That’s when the donkey will either get hay or water depending on which visceral state is “hotter.”

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