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Emotion Regulation

4 Reasons Why Some People Keep Making Poor Life Choices

2. Finding comfort in habits and sameness.

Key points

  • Some people seem to make poor life choices, a problem identified in new research as a “faulty compass.”
  • The four causes of a faulty compass can be traced to deficits in emotional memories.
  • By understanding the causes of your own poor choices, you can set off on a more fulfilling life path.

How many of your past actions do you actively regret? Perhaps in a careless moment, you dropped a cherished glass bowl, only to have it smash to smithereens. This was disappointing, and you wish it hadn’t happened, but your life probably won’t change much as a result.

Some actions, however, do have more serious consequences. You might be unable to stay away from a person in your social circle who constantly puts you down. As terrible as this makes you feel about yourself, you can’t seem to “quit” them. What keeps you coming back for more verbal lashing, and is there a way you could get yourself to stop?

According to a new paper by the University of Amsterdam’s Renée Visser and Arnoud Arntz (2023), maladaptive “situation selection” is a common problem in people who can’t seem to overcome actions that follow from poor choices. Chronic carelessness falls into this category because you don’t seem to learn from past experiences that you have to have your head in the game, even if it’s only carrying things around the house. Continuing to expose yourself to people who are bad for you also reflects poor situation selection and is a potentially significant threat to your happiness and mental health.

The Faulty Compass

Visser and Arntz note that missing the “red flags time and again” signifies that an individual has a “faulty compass,” making them likely to suffer “repeated exposure to negative experiences” (p. 1). Setting aside those experiences caused by repeated trauma that are outside of an individual’s control, they note that the crux of the problem can be traced to a defect in emotional memory.

The types of situations that the Dutch authors note aren’t good for a person include the selection of other people (such as the person who puts you down), places to be, digital media, education, and profession. Clearly, these range in life significance, but all have the potential to reflect an inability to proceed in a way that can benefit you. Consider, for example, what happens when people decide to pursue a career in which the likelihood of success is low, such as entering a highly competitive field for which they have little aptitude.

Again, returning to the issue of whether you have a true choice in these decisions or not, Visser and Arntz offer this clarification of poor situation selection in that it is one that is "dangerous" to you, but that "most others have no trouble avoiding” (p. 2). In other words, you have to know in advance that your action could lead to trouble, but you proceed anyhow.

Listing a set of possible situations that fit this definition, the U. Amsterdam researchers propose that sticking with someone who makes you feel bad, for example, can carry such serious consequences as social exclusion, loneliness, and even “identity disintegration,” or a total questioning of your sense of self.

In some ways, this chronic pattern of poor life choices could fit into what Freud called “repetition compulsion” (translated from the German word wiederholungszwang). However, poor situation selection is more specific to the repetition of poor choices, such as setting yourself up for failure in relationships and life pursuits.

The 4 Causes of a Faulty Compass

With this background in the concept of a faulty compass, it’s time to move on to the four proposed causes. All are based on the foundation of deficits in emotional memory, though each one has its own unique qualities:

  1. An attempt to repair or master previous negative experiences by trying to change the outcome in future experiences. You may seek that unsupportive person’s presence because you hope (probably unrealistically) that they will one day turn around and be nice to you. Things would only be worse if this person is nice to you once in a while, maintaining your behavior through a process known as “variable reinforcement,” creating behavior patterns that are even harder to stop.
  2. Finding comfort in habits and sameness. There is something reassuring about knowing the outcome of a situation, even if that outcome probably isn’t going to be very good. Unpredictability, the authors note, is “one of the greatest stressors,” even more than “predictable pain." You can also take solace, Visser and Arntz propose, by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, you might know, deep down, that not paying attention to your surroundings could lead to accidents. When they happen, you then take a kind of perverse pleasure in seeing this behavior play out to its logical conclusion.
  3. Maintaining a coherent view of yourself and the world. Related to that sense of comfort, but at an even deeper level, people may make choices that reaffirm their sense of self. As an example, the Dutch authors suggest that you choose a partner with a personality similar to yours because this reaffirms your sense of your own personality. This may be a fine choice, but not if it’s based on your fear that someone very different from you will represent a threat to your own sense of self-esteem.
  4. Distraction. By continuing to make poor choices, people may be shifting attention away “from emotional problems they feel they cannot cope with." You may be making things worse, this suggests, as a way to avoid dealing with an underlying issue relating to a previous traumatic situation. That new, distressing experience masks the original one so that it recedes from your conscious awareness.

Making Course Corrections

As you can see from these four possible causes of a faulty compass, prior learning and emotional associations play an important role in setting the course of your future actions. However, prior patterns can be unlearned as well. The most important step in ensuring that this happens is to recognize where your own situation selection has gone awry and work on forming new, and more adaptive, associations.

To sum up, you don’t have to be burdened for your entire life by choices that you now regret. Taking charge of these memories will help set you on that path to fulfillment as you chart out your future life course.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: nikkimeel/Shutterstock


Visser, R. M., & Arntz, A. (2023). A faulty compass: Why do some people choose situations that are not good for them? Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 78, 1–7. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2022.101793

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