Regret is the negative emotion that people experience when realizing or imagining that their present situation would have been better had they decided or acted differently. Regret thus originates in a comparison between outcomes of a chosen option and the non-chosen alternatives in which the latter outperforms the former. This painful emotion reflects on one’s own causal role in the current, suboptimal situation.
The emotion regret is accompanied by feelings that one should have known better, by having a sinking feeling, by thoughts about the mistake one has made and the opportunities lost, by tendencies to kick oneself and to correct one’s mistake, by desires to undo the event and get a second chance, and by actually doing this if given the opportunity. Put differently, regret is experienced as an aversive state that focuses one’s attention on one’s own causal role in the occurrence of a negative outcome. It is thus a cognitively based emotion that motivates one to think about how the negative event came about and how one could change it, or how one could prevent its future occurrence.
Regret in Relation to Decision Making
As such, regret is unique in its relation to decision making and hence to feelings of responsibility for the negative outcome. One only experiences regret over a bad outcome when at some point in time one could have prevented the outcome from happening. Of course, other emotions can also be the result of decisions; for example, one may be disappointed with a decision outcome, or happy about the process by which one made a choice. But, all other emotions can also be experienced in situations in which no decisions are made, whereas regret is exclusively tied to decisions. For example, one can be disappointed with the weather and happy with a birthday present, but one cannot regret these instances (unless the disappointing present was suggested by oneself). Thus, in regret, personal agency and responsibility are central, whereas in other aversive emotions such as anger, fear, and disappointment, agency for the negative outcomes is either undetermined, in the environment, or in another agent. Hence, regret is the prototypical decision-related emotion in the sense that it is felt in response to a decision and that it can influence decision making.
The relation between regret and decision making is also apparent in regret’s connection to counterfactual thinking. Counterfactual thoughts are thoughts about what might have been. It is important to note that not all counterfactual thoughts produce regret, just specifically those that change a bad outcome into a good one by changing a decision or a choice. Thus, when it rains on the way home from work and a person gets wet, the person feels regret when he or she generates a counterfactual thought in which the person brought an umbrella, but not when he or she generates a counterfactual in which it would be a beautiful day. In the latter case, counterfactual thoughts about better weather that could have been would result in disappointment but not in regret (there was nothing the person could have done about the weather, so there is nothing to regret).
Intensity of Reaction to Regret
Experiences of regret can be the result of a negative outcome that was produced by a decision to act or a decision not to act. In other words, one may regret sins of omission and sins of commission. Early regret research focused on whether people regret their actions (commissions) more than their inactions (omissions). This research indicated that people tend to regret their actions more than their inactions. Later research showed that which type of regret is most intense (action regret or inaction regret) depends on the time that has elapsed since the regretted decision. In the short run, people tend to feel more regret about their actions (the stupid things they did or bought), but in the long run, they tend to feel more regret over their inactions (the school they never finished, the career or romance never pursued). This temporal pattern to regret is mainly of the result of several factors that decrease the regret for action over time (e.g., people take more reparative action and engage in more psychological repair work for action regrets than for inaction regrets), and factors that increase the regret for inaction over time (e.g., over time people may forget why they did not act on opportunities, making the inaction inexplicable). An additional factor producing this temporal pattern is that people forget regrettable actions easier than regrettable failures to act, resulting in a greater cognitive availability for failures to act.
Another factor determining the intensity of regret is the justifiability of the decision. People feel most regret over decisions that are difficult to justify. Decisions that are based on solid reasons produce less regret than do decisions that are not well thought through. This justifiability may also explain when actions are more regretted than inactions and when the reverse is true. Consider the following example. There are two coaches of soccer teams. One of them decides to field the same players as last week; the other decides to change the team. Now both teams play and lose. Which coach would feel most regret? Research showed that participants point at the active coach, the one who changed his or her team, as the one who will feel most regret. This clearly shows more regret for action than for inaction (replicating the traditional action-inaction difference). But now consider the same situation, but with the additional information that the current decision to change the team or not follows a prior defeat. Who would now feel most regret, the coach who actively tries to better the situation by changing the team, or the coach who simply fields the same players that lost the previous game? In this case, participants point to the passive coach as the one feeling most regret. This decision was clearly ill justified and therefore produces more regret. A losing record calls for action, and inexplicable inaction produces more regret in situations that call for action. Thus, both decisions to act and decisions to forgo action may result in regret. The intensity of regret depends on the time since the decision and the justifiability of this decision.
Influence of Regret
Psychologists became interested in studying regret partly because it is a passive emotional reaction to bad decisions, but also because it is a major influence on day-to-day decision making. This influence can take two forms. First, the experience of regret may produce a behavioral inclination to reverse one’s decision or undo the consequences. Second, decision makers may anticipate possible future regret when making decisions, and choose in such a way that this future regret will be minimal.
The influence of experienced retrospective regret on ensuing behavior can be functional. The aversive experience prompts people to undo the cause of the regret. For example, after buying a product that proves to be suboptimal, regret can motivate a person to ask for his or her money back, or it may result in apologies in the case of interpersonal regrets. In both instances regret can help people satisfy their needs. It protects people from wasting money and helps them maintain good social relationships. In addition, regret can be functional in the sense that the painful self-reflective nature of the experience is one of various ways by which people learn. The feeling of regret over bad decisions and wrong choices makes them stand out in people’s memory and helps people make better decisions in the future. This is also shown by the finding that people tend to feel most regret about things that they can still improve in the future, sometimes referred to as the opportunity principle in regret. Another functional aspect of regret is that it stems from its influence on cognitions. Instead of going back to the shop to undo the regretted purchase or apologizing to the person central in the regret, the person can imagine various ways in which the current situation could have been more favorable to him or her. So regret motivates people to engage in reparative action and helps them remember their mistakes and missed opportunities; by making cognitively available counterfactual worlds in which one would have arrived at a better outcome, it also prepares people to behave more appropriately when they are confronted with similar choices in the future.
The idea that people, when making decisions, might consider future emotional reactions to possible decision outcomes has some history in research on decision making, starting with economists studying rational choice in the early 1980s. We now know that the influence of anticipated future regret on current decision making can take several forms. First, people may avoid deciding so they can avoid making the wrong decision. However, this inactive attitude may result in regret as well because in the long run inactions produce most regret. People may also avoid or delay their decisions because they want to gather more information so they can make better decisions.
Another way in which anticipated regret can influence decision making is related to post-decisional feedback. Regret stems from comparisons between outcomes of the chosen and nonchosen options, so decision makers can try to avoid regret by avoiding feedback about nonchosen options. In real-life decisions, people may occasionally receive information about foregone outcomes. For example, people choosing to invest in particular stocks will learn about future stock prices for the chosen stocks, but also for the nonchosen stocks. Likewise, gamblers who decide not to bet on the long shot in a horse race will learn after the race is over the position at which this horse finished and, thus, whether this option would have been better. In these cases, one can expect to feel regret if the decision goes awry. For some quite important life decisions, however, such feedback is often not present. If a person decides to go into business with someone or to marry someone, the person will never find out how successful each enterprise would have been had he or she chosen another partner or spouse, or none at all. In these cases, there is only feedback on the chosen option.
The knowledge that this future feedback will or will not be present influences current decision making, as revealed in the following example. Imagine that you have the choice between a sure $100 or a 50% chance of $200 (depending on the toss of a coin). If you opt for the sure thing (the $100), you normally do not learn whether the gamble (the 50% of winning $200) would have been better. If you opt for the gamble, you will always learn the outcome of the gamble and the outcome of the sure thing. Hence, you will always know whether the sure thing would have been better. Thus, the sure thing protects you from regret, whereas the gamble carries some risk of regret. In this case, the anticipation of regret promotes a preference for the sure thing, revealing risk aversion. However, when the outcome of the gamble will become known irrespective of one’s choice (e.g., the coin will always be tossed), one may also end up regretting the choice for the sure $100. This may lead to an increased preference for the gamble, revealing risk seeking. Thus, the anticipation of regret may produce risk-seeking and risk-avoiding choices, depending on which alternative minimizes the future regret. Research has shown that these anticipations of regret can influence many real-life decisions, such as stock market investments, salary negotiations, lottery play, prenatal screening decisions, and condom use.
Regret is an aversive emotional state that is related to counterfactual thoughts about how one’s present situation would have been better had one chosen or acted differently. Therefore, people are motivated to avoid or minimize post-decisional regret. This has several implications for decision making because people may employ different strategies to prevent regret from happening or to cope with regret when it is experienced. In principle, the effects of regret can be considered rational because they protect the decision maker from the aversive consequences of the experience of regret. There might be cases, however, in which an aversion to regret leads one to avoid counterfactual feedback and, hence, results in reduced learning from experience. This might be considered irrational. But, irrespective of this rationality question, regret has shown to be a fundamental emotion in the behavior decisions of most, if not all, people.
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