regretThis backward facing emotion is a combination of self-blame and disappointment.  Interestingly, we all know that it influences our decision making. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow notes that neither prospect theory or utility theory take regret into account.  It is certainly a big part of television games shows like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” as Kahneman’s example illustrates.

Choose between 90% chance to win $1 million OR $50 with certainty.

Choose between 90% chance to win $1 million OR $150,000 with certainty.

You know that in the second example, you will regret turning down a gift of $150k if you do not win the million.  With regret, the experience of an outcome depends on a choice you could have taken, but did not.  Kahneman  notes that since regret adds more weight to the tool box and little to better prediction, it is not really worth the trouble to include it.

Decision makers know that regret is accompanied by feelings that one should have known better, by a sinking feeling, by a tendency to kick oneself and to correct the mistake.  Decision makers with regret know they should have done something else.  Regret is painful and anticipating it plays a part in your decision making.  Intuitions about regret are quite uniform among us.

Research shows that decisions that depart from what could be called the default choice produce the most regret.  People expect to feel more regret when an outcome is produced by action than when the very same outcome is produced by inaction. If you sold stock and lost $1200 you will feel more regret than if you already owned the same stock and lost $1200.

This asymmetry in the risk of regret favors conventional and risk averse choices.  One can imagine that regret might inspire you to make certain that the new way of doing things really works and that gave those with some regret a survival advantage.

Kahneman suggests that you can also take measures that will protect you against regret.  If you remember when things go badly that you considered the possibility of regret carefully before deciding, you may experience less of it.  Kahneman says that his personal strategy to avoid regret coming together with hindsight is to either be thorough or completely casual when making a decision with consequences. That way you will not look back and say “I almost made a better choice.”

Dan Gilbert et al in “Looking Forward to Looking Backward the Misprediction of Regret(2004)” suggest that we tend to anticipate more regret than we will actually experience.

Gilbert suggests that because self-blame is a key ingredient in the recipe for regret, it is only reasonable that people should expect regret to be increased by things that highlight their personal responsibility for bad outcomes. So, for example, when one misses an airplane by just a few minutes or a gold medal by just a few meters, it is all too easy to imagine how a small change in one’s own behavior might have changed the outcome. However, this expectation may be wrong.  Gilbert points out that we routinely overestimate the negative impacts of our professional failures and romantic breakups.

One of the reasons why people expect to feel more regret when they fail by a narrow margin than when they fail by a wide margin is that they expect to blame themselves more in the former instance. But if people avoid self-blame with relative ease, then the size of the margin
should have little or no impact on the experience of regret. Gilbert and his colleagues sought to investigate this possibility in four studies. The studies included a modified game of The Price is Right and some trials in the Boston Subway.

In Gilbert’s studies, people mistakenly expected a narrow margin of loss to increase their feelings of regret, because they did not realize how readily they would absolve themselves of responsibility for their disappointing outcomes.

regret-catGilbert proposes that this failure to realize just how easily future regrets will be minimized may be costly for decision makers, who often favor gambles in which bad outcomes are likely but unregrettable over gambles in which bad outcomes are unlikely but regrettable.

People seem willing to pay a steep price to avoid future regrets, but Gilbert suggests that they may be buying emotional insurance that they do not need.

In a 2012 article Barry Schwartz, Arne Roets, and Yanjun Guan discussed their  cross-cultural study of maximizing-satisficing effects on well-being. In that study, they found that maximizers who tend to seek the best option in every choice situation rather than the good enough choice that satisficers are willing to accept, experience more regret in Belgium, China, and the United States.  However, in Belgium and the United States, increased regret was strongly associated with decreased well-being, while in China it was not.

Schwartz proposes that the maximizers in China experience regret over imperfect outcomes just like those in the west, but, given that individual choice is less abundant  and less valued in China as the way to happiness, such regret may be less harmful to well-being than in societies where choice is of utmost value.  As Gilbert would seem likely to assert, it is much easier to avoid self-blame if you have fewer choices.

The possible cause and effect of all this is far from determined.  Satisficers in the United States experienced the most well being as determined by Schwarz’s study.  Maximizers are generally seen to make the most accurate decisions.  In China, where there are fewer choices, is there a similar difference between anticipated and experienced regret? As people in China gain more choice will their regret start to more negatively impact their well being?  Or will their eastern differences continue to protect them, e.g. emphasis on being part of society over individualism?

Regret seems adaptive only as in the title of Gilbert’s article: Looking forward to looking backward.  It seems that once you feel actual regret, the only adaptive response is eliminate it.  Regret is included in some so-called traditional wisdom. regretnoThe comic quotes one of the most popular:  “You only regret the things that you don’t do.”  Michael Perry in his book, Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace, asks Tom if over his eighty two years he has any regrets. Tom’s complete answer is “Well, sure.”