Choice supportive bias
“I exaggerate the benefits of an option after choosing it.”
Choice supportive bias is the tendency to retrospectively overestimate the positive aspects of an option after having chosen it. It also implies the underestimation of the negative aspects of this choice. Several studies show that memory is involved in this bias, as our memory of the various options is altered, which results in us remembering the positive aspects of our choice better . Likewise, we also tend to forget or downplay its negative aspects. The memory of the rejected options is also modified, as we remember mainly their negative aspects rather than their positive aspects. This gives us the illusion of a greater gap between our choice and the other alternatives that were available to us. Studies have shown that people who are manipulated into believing they have chosen an option, when in fact they have rejected it, also tend to remember that option more positively . Thus, we experience choice supportive bias even when we only have the illusion of having chosen an option.
As part of a study, researchers asked accounting graduate students to evaluate several accounting firms based on their positive and negative characteristics. They then repeated this step, a year after they were hired by a specific firm. Their attitude had become significantly more positive towards the firm in which they had chosen to work, and their evaluation of the other firms were now significantly more negative .
When we feel that, after all, the choice we made was not the best one, we are disappointed, ashamed or anxious. Our choice is not coherent with our attitudes (believing it was the right choice) which leads to post-decision dissonance. According to cognitive dissonance theory, we experience internal conflict when our attitudes, beliefs, actions, choices, or emotions are in contradiction with one another. We tend to adopt strategies to reduce this dissonance and regain a sense of internal coherence . Post-decision dissonance is thus a specific form of cognitive dissonance. It is to attenuate this cognitive dissonance that the choice supportive bias comes into play. We modify our memories, often unintentionally, to accentuate the advantages of our choices and minimize those of the discarded options. By doing so, we regain internal coherence as we feel that our action is consistent with our belief that we made the best choice.
The choice supportive bias can result in an increase in polarization of attitudes. Indeed, by overvaluing the gap between our choice and the other possibilities, we reach a far less tempered opinion of the alternatives which were available to us. A study has shown that after having voted for a presidential candidate, citizens tended to have a stronger positive impression of their chosen political party . This bias can therefore have an impact on the polarization of political, social and cultural ideas.
Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias
Make a list of the pros and cons for each option before making a choice. This way, we can keep an objective description of each alternative even after making a choice.
Consider the arguments of people who have made a different choice, to nuance our opinion and see the advantages of other options.
Keep a certain humility and stay flexible in our attitudes. By accepting that we could make a mistake, we remain open to the possibility of changing our attitudes over time.
How is this bias measured?
Generally, this bias is measured with a three-step experiment. This first step consists in presenting participants with several options without letting them know that they will have to choose one. They are then asked to estimate the desirability of each option on a scale, for example, ranging from 1 to 8. In the second step, participants are asked to choose one of these options. Finally, participants are asked to reevaluate the different options, and the difference between their first and second ratings are computed. Typically, participants tend to rate an option significantly more positively after having chosen it, as well as rate the rejected ones significantly less positively.
This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:
This bias has social or individual repercussions:
This bias is empirically demonstrated:
 Beasley, Ryan K. & Mark R. Joslyn (2001). Cognitive dissonance and post-decision attitude change in six presidential elections. Political Psychology, 22(3), 521–540.
Individual level, Availability heuristic, Need for cognitive consonance
Anne-Sophie Blouin, bachelor’s student in psychology, Université du Québec à Montréal.
Translated from French to English by Émilie Gagnon-St-Pierre.