Newsletter 564 – Why Do Smart People Make Stupid Decisions?

DecisionsLast week’s Newsletter (#563) reviewed Philip Yancey’s new book The Question that Never Goes Away: Why. The book alerted me to the number of Why? Questions I was hearing from my friends: “Why did I spend thousands to get a degree and now can’t find a job?” “Why was my application for graduate school rejected without being read?” “Why did my cousin commit suicide this week?” Yancey shows that God never answers the Why? Questions but he permits tragedies that mold us. He wants to see how we respond. To use a cliché, do we get better or bitter? Do we acknowledge the grief or loss and then try to move on? Or do we wallow in misery and bitterness but never recover?

Have you ever pondered how tragedies and disappointments so often lead to unwise decisions and actions? To rephrase the title of this post: Why do otherwise rational people make irrational–sometimes self-destructive—decisions in times of stress? We see this prominently when politicians, people in ministry, and others make unwise decisions, sink their careers and destroy their families. Reasons include these:

  • The brain responds to intense emotion—fear, sadness, strong sexual and other arousal—by temporarily shutting down the cognitive, rational, thinking parts of the brain. This heightens our sensory system and narrows our cognitive focus so we are better able to detect stressors. As a result we make decisions with a narrow focus, miss the bigger picture, and take actions that are regretted later.
  • We lose perspective when we face trauma. For example, we dwell on the losses and fail to notice what might be positive in tough situations. Dwelling on the negative can lead to the destructive bitterness that counselors encounter and the Bible cautions against (Eph 5:31-2.)
  • We are influenced by people who pull us down and encourage us to take unwise actions while we’re in the midst of emotional overload. Involvement with a supportive community or caring friend can help maintain a more balanced view.
  • We see no reason to hope so we throw caution to the wind and move forward with unwise thinking and actions. Here is where our core values and belief systems become important. There’s a difference when one’s “hope is in the Lord.”

What would you add to this list? When we know reasons for unwise decisions in times of stress, we are better able to help others.  Please respond.


  1. For the past many years, I’ve believed (and I continue to believe) that God’s answer for me to the “Why?” question is simply, ‘Because.’ When God says, “My ways are not like your ways …” I don’t think he’s kidding. Someday I will understand. But not necessarily Today.


  2. Apart from having them read this post, what else can we do when we are going through these times, or where can we point friends who are experiencing the abnormal stressors?


  3. What a helpful letter Gary! Thank you! I think as we understand more we are able to help with greater wisdom–far less judgment. Watched the old version of Razor”s Edge last night. Perfect example of one overcome with grief making terrible life decisions (Sophie).


  4. Your last point regarding a loss of hope is a very important one. This may lead to “intermediary bad decisions,” which may seem small but then lead to even bigger bad decisions. For example, a hopeless person may choose to drink more coffee, which then increases her caffeine levels and results in greater nervousness or instability, in turn resulting in worse decisions, such that the mess snowballs further. A solid trust in God’s goodness and wisdom in such times is critical to maintaining one’s emotional and rational balance. We need to call out to Him. He knows we are frail.


  5. Thank you. I have really enjoyed this discussion. Deep-rooted underlying beliefs about ourselves – often born of erroneous associated thoughts about ourselves/our value within the world – rear their heads at times of distress. The world can cruelly add to our burdens of maladaptive thinking with subtle subliminal messages. God, however, tells us the truth in his Word. If we focused on that more than the world’s expectations at such times, we’d fair better. The late John O’Donohue, in his book ‘Divine Beauty’, gives some illuminating comment about ‘breaking the shell from the inside’ of ourselves. During and after times of pain, we naturally withdraw back into our shell, this is not a good place to stay or from which to make balanced decisions.


  6. Thank you for this thoughtful post. As most of those who commented, I too have come to understand that “Why?” is not the best question to ask and is usually not answered. We humans seem to always want to find reasons in the hope that this will help us understand and then be able to deal with the issues we’re facing. I’ve found a far better question to ask of the Lord is “What is this for?” If we believe God sees the big picture then all that happens in our lives can serve his purposes. We can actively take part in this process. Our infinite, always loving God has purposes that are far reaching and he gives us the privilege of working with him even when we are denied the “reasons” for what we are experiencing. We can always choose to cooperate with his purposes.


  7. I have read all of your responses with great interest. I agree that the book of Proverbs is helpful but I agree, as well, that even in Scripture the “why?” questions usually go unanswered.

    Certainly it is true that we are accustomed to thinking that if we can understand the reasons for something, then we can control the situation and act in ways that will make things better. But God never answered Job’s why questions and Jesus never really answered when the disciples asked why a tower had fallen on some people.

    Rob probably speaks for most of us. If we don’t understand why then how can we bring comfort to others or to ourselves? People have struggled with this for centuries. Moses must have wondered why he spent the best years of his life in the wilderness. Joseph must have wondered why he was in prison. Jeremiah certainly asked why he had been faithful but had no converts.

    I very rarely get angry with God but I did a few days ago. I think this is OK with him. Then I had to decide if I withdraw or keep going in ways that please him. Where else is there hope? And in all of this I still find help in the words of Scripture and when I am in the company of supportive friends – even though they don’t know why either.


  8. another reason people make bad decisions is because their universe of actual meaningful truthful facts is relatively small. this is different from point one where emotional stressors prompt emotionally based decisions. some people we would categorize as insane are in fact extremely rational and logical. but they can only draw certain conclusions based on the “facts” they allow themselves to recognize,


  9. I have found all aspects of this discussion interesting. It prompted me to think about Jesus. When he said, ‘…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven…’ Mat. 18:3. Something we learn from the average wide-eyed, eager to learn four year old is how often they say ‘why’. Why? Why? Why?! Not in lament, but to seek to understanding. And they don’t necessarily want the whole answer, but it leads them into further discovery.


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