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Decisions, Decisions: Some We Struggle To Make, Others We Can't Forget

Dan Gilbert says we're not great at predicting how much we will enjoy an experience in part because we fail to consider all of the details. We think a visit to the dentist will be terrible — but we're forgetting about the free toothbrush, the nice chat with the dental hygienist, and the magazines in the waiting room.
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Dan Gilbert says we're not great at predicting how much we will enjoy an experience in part because we fail to consider all of the details. We think a visit to the dentist will be terrible — but we're forgetting about the free toothbrush, the nice chat with the dental hygienist, and the magazines in the waiting room.

We just can't let go of some decisions. We replay them in our head and imagine alternate endings.

These sorts of looping mental videos are called counterfactuals. Northwestern University Professor Neal Roese says there's real value to wondering "if only."

"Counterfactual thoughts are generally useful for us in terms of providing a set of options that we might act upon in the future," he says. "This can lead to improvement. It can lead to learning from experience."

But counterfactual thinking isn't always so constructive. Counterfactuals sometimes appear when they're not needed; they can also fail to appear when they would be most useful.

This week, we try to understand why some events prompt these "What if?" questions, while others do not.

We also look at the decisions that may eventually be contenders for counterfactuals—the decisions we have yet to make.

Psychologist Dan Gilbert says that no matter how much time we spend thinking about the future, we don't get any better at predicting it. That's why, as he writes in his book Stumbling on Happiness, divorce lawyers and people who remove tattoos continue to have a steady stream of customers. From Dan, we learn where we go wrong in making our predictions and how we might make our future selves happier.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Parth Shah, Rhaina Cohen, Laura Kwerel and Thomas Lu. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Parth Shah is a producer and reporter in the Programming department at NPR. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.
Max Nesterak