Decisions: we all have to make tons of them each and every day. From what to eat for lunch and whether to wear our lucky pants or not, to more significant choices regarding work, relationships and finance, we all have decisions to make all the time. And, crucially, the 'right' option is not always wholly apparent to us.

Sometimes, a bad decision does not prove all that problematic to us, and yet other times it can be catastrophic: look at how these seemingly trivial decisions changed the course of history in a real-life butterfly effect. Neuroscientists have worked for centuries to determine why the brain works like it does. They have investigated concepts like the brain’s mapping, its unique rewards system and theories such as confirmation bias to examine how we come to make our decisions… good, bad and otherwise. Bad decisions can lead to defeat on the sports field or on the poker table. They can lead us into bad relationships or breaking up with a perfect partner. They can lead us to poor career choices, and – in extreme cases – they can lead to world wars, as highlighted in the link above (okay, so these instances are rare, but you get the idea!).

What are Bad Decisions, and How are These Defined?

We all know what bad decisions are – even if, at the time at least, they appeared to be the right thing to do. But remember, none of us can predict the future…not even so-called 'experts' in their field. Phillip Tetlock, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, arranged a large group of specialists to essentially predict the future in their chosen field, asking economists to predict whether the dotcom bubble would burst, and so on. After two decades and more than 80,000 forecasts, Tetlock came to a simple conclusion: the group were 'not much better at predicting the future than a dart-throwing chimpanzee'. But the professor noted that some of the experts were better than others. Those who performed the best analyzed their subjects more thoroughly and were readily open to challenging their own perceptions in the quest for the truth. Ironically, the most 'knowledgeable' of the experts also proved to be the least effective with their predictions. Why? They suffered from biases caused by over-confidence and an inflated ego. Neuroscientific experiments and the art of decision making …a match made in heaven!

Why Do We Make Bad Decisions?

Even the most intelligent of people are prone to errors and making bad decisions, and it’s simply because of how their brains work. A concept called confirmation bias sums up perfectly why even the most intellectual of individuals are not immune to messing up their life choices. This is where we base our decisions on ideas and beliefs that we wholeheartedly believe to be true, without wanting to question the merits of our own judgement. This is a prejudicial mindset colored by wishful thinking and can ultimately lead to us failing to make the right call more often than not. Confirmation bias tells us that, for many people, once an opinion has been formed it cannot be broken. We reject evidence that casts doubt on our views and only embrace that which confirms our prejudices. It’s a theory that, if we were being honest, many of us recognize in ourselves. But once we have recognized the fact, we can start to make changes to how we make our decisions. Take Abraham Lincoln, for example. Rather than surrounding himself with 'yes men' as advisors, he deliberately employed cabinet members of opposing political parties and even people he had beaten in presidential elections. Why? Because he wanted to make informed, impartial decisions taking in all of the facts – free from confirmation bias.

Bad Decisions in Poker

Hopefully you have followed us so far about the concept of confirmation bias and can see how that might make a mockery of your abilities at the poker table. Overconfidence and ego can lead to many bad decisions in poker, including calling and raising with what is a marginal hand at best. Confirmation bias also dictates that you might see hands you lose simply as bad luck or a bad beat, and you won’t alter your strategy accordingly or, worse still, go full tilt and start throwing chips around in subsequent rounds. When wins are down purely to skill and losses caused by bad luck… that’s a recipe for disaster. The day you stop improving as a poker player is the day you stop learning about the game. That might be learning about yourself – your strengths and weaknesses, or by studying the techniques of others. At this point, an important distinction should be drawn up: the difference between bad decisions and mistakes.

We all make mistakes in poker and in life; that’s just human nature. You can change your whole strategy to poker or switch variants from Texas Hold ‘em to Omaha Hi/Lo, for instance, but you still won’t play the perfect poker game. The problem is that making bad decisions via ineffective poker psychology can be controlled by the individual, but only by those willing to challenge their own confirmation biases. It is difficult to remap the brain and rehabilitate ourselves, that’s a given, but if you take a wider-ranging approach to decision making in poker then your game can only improve.

Bad Decisions in Our Love Lives

Hands up any of you who found your soulmate early on in life and have been living in spiritual contentment ever since? Okay, not many of you. Why is that? The truth is that many of us spend time in bad relationships. How we define 'bad' doesn’t have to be the stereotypical Hollywood view of arguments, drinking and mutual disgust; it can simply be forging a relationship with somebody that isn’t perfectly attuned to your needs. It’s one factor in the staggering number of extra-marital affairs that occur and why people seemingly with everything, such as Olivia Culpo, find themselves being cheated on. We make bad decisions as far as our love lives are concerned because of imbalances in our emotional intelligence. How do we process our own emotions? How receptive are we to understanding the feelings of others? Do we use hyper emotions to inform our decision making or rational thinking? One of the forefathers of emotional intelligence is Daniel Goleman, the science writer who has penned many timeless theories on neuroscience that have been widely accepted by the thinking community. He suggests there are five areas that drive emotional intelligence, namely self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, empathy and motivation. Master this quintet of drivers, says Goleman, and you can improve your emotional intelligence. And that is likely to act as a forerunner for improved decision making – whether in matters of the heart, the head or on the poker table.