Why We Do Stupid Things

We all do things we know we’ll regret. They could be little, like funnelling Thin Mints straight from the sleeve when we’re ostensibly on a diet or sending an angry, heat-of-the-moment email we know will require a mea culpa. Or they could be big, like having an affair or relapsing into drugs again. Turns out it’s not just you—it’s science. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reveals three reasons we do dumb things.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #98

We all do things we know we shouldn’t. Eat that party size bag of M&Ms when we’re stressed. Have just one more drink. Sleep with our ex. Get a tattoo of the KFC Double Down sandwich (this actually happened).

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There’s even an entire city is built on the knowledge that we will do stupid things: what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.  

Today we’ll talk about three reasons why—even as our conscience or our common sense screams, “Nooooooooo!”—we watch ourselves do things we know we’ll regret.

Reason #1: Two Kinds of Pleasure.  From a 2007 paper in the journal Psychopharmacology comes the idea that there are actually two types of pleasure. The first type is how we usually think of pleasure: a state of happy satisfaction. For example, we get this kind of pleasure from a good meal, sex and its afterglow, or from that first sip when we’re really, really thirsty. We’ll call this pleasure “liking.”  

But it turns out there’s a second kind of pleasure: the pleasure of pursuing something, excitement, anticipation, seduction, or feeling powerful as you know you got this. We’ll call this pleasure “wanting.”  

In other words, we usually think of “liking” pleasure as Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love: falling in love, eating gelato—that feeling of satisfaction, relaxation, and feeling loved and safe. But the “wanting” pleasure is more like Vince Vaughn in Swingersit’s the thrill of the chase and the tingling of desire.

And it’s this second kind of pleasure—the thrill of the chase—that helps us do so many stupid things. Even when we know there will be no “liking” pleasure and we’ll regret it in the morning, we do it anyway.

The starkest example of this is drug use. Cocaine and methamphetamine in particular are notorious for short-circuiting the dopamine system in the brain, which is heavily involved in “wanting.” Over time, in those with the right (or wrong, as it were) combination of predisposition and experience, drug use moves from being voluntary and occasional to irresistibly compulsive. The wanting system creates an irresistible craving that makes those addicted seek out hit after hit, even if it makes them feel sick or costs them their health and relationships.

Dopamine also plays a role in non-drug compulsive behaviors like gambling away our paycheck, binge eating, or sexual addiction. Even when you know you’ll hate yourself later, the “wanting” can be so strong it’s undeniable.  


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.