A faulty compass: Why do some people choose situations that are not good for them?

J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2023 Mar;78:101793. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2022.101793. Epub 2022 Nov 23.


Why do some people seem to be drawn to situations that are not good for them? While we all regularly end up in situations that we would have preferred to avoid, we tend to not choose situations or other people that are not good for us, and with time most of us get better at recognizing and avoiding these situations. However, it is a well-known clinical phenomenon that some people have a faulty compass when it comes to these situations, increasing the likelihood of repeated exposure to negative experiences and even trauma. In this paper, we reflect on the relationship between adverse experiences early in development and dysfunctional choices in adulthood, with the aim to reinvigorate interest in this clinically important phenomenon, which is in need of rigorous empirical study. Based on the literature and clinical observations, we distill four categories of hypotheses: people make dysfunctional choices 1) to process or master previous trauma, 2) out of habit and because of preferences for what is familiar, 3) to maintain a coherent view of themselves and the world, and 4) to avoid difficult emotions. We end with concrete questions that can help narrow down the heterogenous set of observations and explanations, providing a first step towards a better conceptualisation and systematic documentation of (factors contributing to) maladaptive situation selection. We dedicate this essay to Jack Rachman, who was a great inspirator for the field of experimental psychopathology with his essays highlighting phenomena that were overlooked and drawing attention to fresh ideas.

Keywords: Dysfunctional choice; Emotion regulation; Emotional memory; Experimental psychopathology; Trauma.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Emotions*
  • Humans