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More PsychNotes: Emotions

April 29, 2016       
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Predicting Regret to Help Make Decisions
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

We can't go through life without experiencing regret for decisions we have made. Even not making a decision is a decision (to paraphrase William James, 1842-1910). The emotion of regret is a good example of how emotions are tools that help us cope with life. By listening to the message of regret we can then determine how to best handle a situation.

By examining daily diaries of decision-making researchers determined that people experience regret with about 30% of decisions whereas they predict regret for 70% of their decisions. This high estimate of predicted regret may be an over-estimate of future pain or unhappiness. Nevertheless, attempts to manage or avoid regret are an important part of our daily decision-making (Bjälkebring et al., 2015).

People use a variety of methods to avoid regret which may be more or less effective for making better decisions. When the strategies are a way of coping with regret they can enhance decision-making. However, the following strategies can also be irrational means of avoiding the feeling of regret, in which case, they may negatively impact decision-making.

1) Avoid information. Have you ever purchased something and afterward didn't want to hear about current sales prices? People may avoid discussing the decision after they have made it or avoid information about the possibility they didn't choose. This can reduce the feelings of current regret. But it may prevent them from obtaining information which could be useful with future decision-making.

2) Delay decision. Fear of regret can lead to not making a decision or delaying it. However, such a strategy is still making a decision. As such, it is not an effective way of dealing with regret because not making the decision could still lead to regret. Yet, some people are able to convince themselves, however irrationally, that because they did not make the decision, they are not responsible for the outcome. In such a way they avoid feeling regret.

3) Expect regret. “I know I'm going to regret this...” Other times people deliberately expect regret because they believe that expecting regret will somehow diminish it. This strategy more often creates regret unnecessarily because they already feel regret when the outcome hasn't occurred yet. By focusing on the belief that regret will occur they may not be fully open to all available information.

4) Justify decision. After a decision people may use justification to reduce feelings of regret. “I needed to do that because...” This may be a rational justification or a rationalization just to avoid the emotion. A rational justification, for instance, is when someone recognizes the decision was more important than the outcome. “I needed to try and see if that could work—now I now it won't.” Whereas a rationalization is when someone convinces themselves that it really was the right decision when it clearly was not. “I bought this expensive new car because my old one wasn't reliable.”

5) Reverse decision. If possible, people may change their minds. This can be effective if it is made for other reasons than just avoiding the emotion. For example, someone chooses a color to paint a room and then regrets the decision after the room is painted. They can choose another color which could make sense if the color is truly hideous. But if it is just the regret of not choosing the other color, then it may not be reasonable to repaint because every choice involves the loss of the other possibility which means we will feel regret. We can't avoid all regret.

6) Suppress emotion. Some people just ignore the feelings of regret. Suppression, however, prevents listening to the message of regret and being able to use it as part of the decision-making process.

How can we effectively use regret as a tool for decision-making?

We can use our ability to predict regret to help us make a decision. Rather than over-estimating regret or avoiding regret, we can look at the possibility of regret as a factor in the decision-making process. We can allow ourselves to imagine each of the possible outcomes of a decision (including not making the decision) and determine which we are least likely to regret.

However, this method can only be effective with rational decision-making. This needs to be done without fears influencing our perspective. It is not effective if we are unwilling to take the risk of failure and regret. We can't make decisions just to avoid the possibility of regret because that is impossible and can lead to paralysis. Once we understand the avoidance of regret is not possible we can then use it in our decision-making process. We can think of regret as a way of determining what we want.

“Will I regret not having tried more than I will regret having failed?”

“Will I regret not making a decision more than making one that didn't have the outcome I thought it would?”

“Will I feel a great deal of regret or just a bit of regret?”

“Which decision—or lack of a decision—is more likely to lead to regret?”

“Will I regret not pursuing this and seeing what possibilities are available to me?”

Obviously, examining regret is just one aspect of making a decision. Other factors may include gathering information, assessing the likelihood of outcomes, and determining other impacts of the decision.

Bjälkebring, P., Västfjäll, D., Svenson, O., Slovic, P. (2015). Regulation of Experienced and Anticipated Regret in Daily Decision Making. Emotion, 16, 381-386. DOI: 10.1037/a0039861


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