We are creatures of habit. Most of us like predictability and certainty. It cuts down on the mental effort needed to get through the day. We generally like the choices we make, even though those choices may have been made without great conviction. We put value on the choices we make in the short term and, according to research, in the long term too.

When it comes to mediation or negotiation it can be difficult to get a party to admit a mistake was made in the past for many reasons. One may be that we inherently put value in the choices we make. The past decision may have been a close one to make, but after the decision is made we put value in our selection (maybe more than it deserves) perhaps to resolve inner conflicts and make ourselves feel better.

If You Liked It Before You’ll Like It Again

The concept of cognitive dissonance is at play here. It is a psychological term that describes the tension we feel when we,

  • Have two conflicting thoughts at the same time,
  • Engage in behavior that conflicts with one’s beliefs, or
  • Experience seemingly conflicting phenomena.

It can be a subconscious filtering of information conflicting with your beliefs to ignore that information and reinforce those beliefs. The theory of cognitive dissonance states that contradicting cognitions (any element of knowledge, including attitude, emotion, belief or behavior) are a driving force compelling the mind to gather or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to change current beliefs, to reduce the dissonance (or conflict) between cognitions.

If you make a choice between two options and you don’t have strong feelings for or against either option it creates a sense of dissonance. We may struggle with making a choice if we don’t have a definite preference of one over the other. Re-evaluating the options after the decision was made may be a way to resolve this dissonance.

This process has been shown in numerous studies but they examined a preference change shortly after decisions were made. New research shows these changes in preference are stable over a long period of time, according to Science Daily.

Researcher Tali Sharot of University College London and her colleagues looked at whether choice-induced changes in preference are temporary or long-lasting.

  • 39 undergraduates rated the desirability of 80 different vacation destinations on how happy they believe they would be if they were to go to that location.
  • They then received pairs of similar vacation destinations and were asked to pick the destination they would prefer.
  • The participants rated the destinations again immediately after making their choices and three years later.
  • Researchers also examined participants’ preferences when they made the choices themselves and when a computer made the choice for them.

The results of the study suggest choosing between two similar options can result in long lasting changes in preference.

  • Participants rated vacation destinations as more desirable both immediately after choosing them as well as three years later.
  • This change only happened if they had made the original choice themselves, not when the computer made the choice for the participants.

Sharot argues this effect is strong and enduring and has implications for economics, marketing and even interpersonal relationships. As an example Sharot states repeatedly endorsing a particular political party may entrench this preference in the long term.

If litigation is caused by a past decision a defendant made and he or she saw it as a close decision without any basis for a strong conviction, as time passes to resolve the defendant’s cognitive dissonance he or she may view the decision with more confidence and a stronger belief in its importance and correctness.

A way around this is to portray a settlement not as an admission of poor judgement or of some personal flaw for which there should be compensated. Instead of battling with the party’s inner conflicts portray the settlement as a practical way to resolve an issue in the present and finally put it behind him or her. A past decision may or may not have been correct, but the correct decision now is to settle the case.