People find themselves making the same mistakes and so being unhappy in the same ways they have been before. Why don’t we learn?
Well in part because we convince ourselves we’ve made no mistakes! I was taught once that dissonance theory arose in part because its founder, Leon Festinger, bought a Nash Rambler, a car that was a lemon. Though he spent his time swearing it was a great car (so not realizing the mistake) his students could tell it was a blunder. I don’t know what cars he bought afterwards, but this doesn’t bode well!
But we’re most likely to do that sort of self-justification when our decisions are irrevocable. Once the car is bought, we have reason to convince ourselves it’s great. Before that we have every reason to search for its flaws so that we make the right choice.
For instance, in one study students were given their choice of one of two posters to take home. Half were told the decision could not be changed. Half were told that if they changed their minds they could bring the poster back. The ones with the irrevocable decision came to like their posters more.
One key here is that people predicted that revocability would make no difference. Our ability to persuade ourselves we have been right works because we don’t realize what we are doing.
An interesting question arising from this is the degree to which having a chance to change our minds undermines our ability to be happy. Thinking something is a done deal leads us to find a way to live with it and (perhaps hopefully!) to love it. Thinking that it can be returned leads to a search for the flaws. How, then, does the presence of no-fault divorce change people’s happiness in marriage? How does the sense that one will change jobs lead people to not love their jobs? Search in anything and you can find both beauty and imperfections. Does keeping one’s options open preclude just giving oneself over to the beauty?