Post No.: 0873
Regret is an emotional punishment we inflict on ourselves. The fear of regret influences many of our decisions. It’s accompanied by feelings that one should’ve known better, a sinking feeling, thoughts about the mistake one has made or opportunities lost, a tendency to kick oneself, and wanting to correct or undo an event and get a second chance. It’s those ‘if only I…’ thoughts, or the anticipations of such.
The more easily you can imagine yourself having done something other than what you did, the more intense the potential regret. It’s a counterfactual emotion triggered by the availability of perceived alternatives to reality, which is related to the hindsight bias. These poignant counterfactual stories typically involve unusual events since they’re easier than regular events to undo in imagination (‘norm theory’) – our associative memory or internal model contains a representation of the ‘normal’ world and its rules, whilst an ‘abnormal’ event surprises us, attracts attention and activates the conception of the event that would’ve been normal under the same circumstances (e.g. if you don’t normally pick up hitchhikers and then a hitchhiker robs you, you’ll probably feel far more regret than someone who does normally pick up hitchhikers and then a hitchhiker robs them – thus regret is related to the things you don’t normally do). With hindsight, it’ll therefore be easier to imagine the normal choice had one taken it. The abnormal choice will be easier to counterfactually undo in one’s mind, hence the feeling of regret.
Although blame is also evoked by a comparison to a norm – regret isn’t the same as blame. The relevant norms are different. (Since frequently picking up hitchhikers is not most people’s norm, most people will judge you as unlucky; whilst the person who normally picks up hitchhikers will be blamed for getting what he/she deserves for habitually taking unreasonable risks. However, you’ll more likely be the one kicking yourself with regret for doing something you don’t normally do.)
Unusual events also call for causal explanations and evoke counterfactual thoughts, and the same event can be compared to either a personal norm or the norm of other people, leading to different counterfactuals, causal attributions and emotions i.e. regret or blame.
So for many decisions we make in life – particularly personally non-routine ones – the anticipation of the painful emotion of regret looms. And fuzzy regret plays on our hindsight bias – we only regret things with hindsight. But if we couldn’t have made a better decision at the time then we should broad-frame our regrets away – we win some and lose some, but if we keep making the best decisions we can based on the information we have at the times we have to make them then we’ll likely generate a net positive result in the long run.
The ‘simulation heuristic’ is employed when we determine the likelihood of an event based on how easy it is to mentally picture that event – this contributes to why we feel more regret for outcomes that are easier to imagine, or the ‘near misses’. The feeling of regret is greater the nearer something was felt to be within our claws (e.g. we can easily imagine ourselves if we had just made one different pivotal choice that would’ve changed everything), and especially if we acted compared to not acting (e.g. in a game show, we’ll feel more regret if we had the winning box in our paws but then traded it than if we didn’t hold it but didn’t trade for it – even though the outcomes are objectively similar).
So we expect to experience stronger emotional reactions, like regret, to outcomes that are produced by action than to the exact same outcomes that are produced by inactions or sticking with the default. This explains why we tend to stick with the default option or choose to do nothing/carry on as we were, especially when a situation seems complex and the future outcome of one’s decision seems uncertain, like carrying on as usual with one’s consumptive lifestyle (which one knows for certain is pleasurable today) rather than being more environmentally considerate (when the future is relatively more uncertain regarding its pleasures and pains). Both future pleasures and pains are discounted too i.e. a pleasure/pain today is weightier than an equivalent pleasure/pain in the future (e.g. receiving €100 today is worth more than receiving the same €100 next year, or paying a €100 fine today is worse than deferring that same €100 fine until next year).
But we’ll derive more pleasure if we’ve acted towards a desirable outcome than not, even if they relate to equivalent outcomes (e.g. we expect to be happier if we gamble and win than if we refrain from gambling yet receive the same amount nevertheless). Albeit the pain of regret will typically feel greater due to loss aversion, hence a greater proclivity towards risk-aversion or change-aversion.
To be more precise – the key isn’t the difference between action and inaction but between the default option and deviations from the normal response, whether it’s action when one normally doesn’t act, or inaction when one normally does act, in a particular situation.
When we depart from the default, we can easily imagine the norm, and thus the anticipation of regret if the deviation is associated with potentially unwanted consequences. The default option when you own a stock is to not sell it (inaction), thus selling it would risk the feeling of regret or blame. The default option when you meet a friend is to greet them (action). In other contexts, the default state can depend on how a question is phrased (e.g. in a card game, being asked, “Do you wish to twist?” and saying, “No” then losing will elicit less regret than saying, “Yes” and going bust; whereas being asked, “Do you wish to stick?” and saying, “No” then going bust will elicit less regret than saying, “Yes” and losing).
The default response is usually ‘I don’t have a strong inclination to do it’ or leaving a box blank. The default or conventional option is perceived to be the risk-averse choice. Consumers who are reminded that they may feel regret as a result of their choices show an increased preference for sticking to well-known brands. One may discover a shampoo one likes then never tries anything else, to avoid regret. Even concerning life-or-death decisions, a physician who prescribes a promising but unusual treatment will face a substantial risk of regret, blame and therefore litigation compared to if they stick to prescribing the conventional treatment (hence one reason why most stick to the default of prescribing pills to patients) – if this physician dared and succeeded, his/her reputation will be enhanced, but this potential benefit is smaller than the potential cost because, in this context, success is generally considered to be a more normal outcome than failure.
Post No.: 0871 also stated how ‘maximizers’ or perfectionists are more prone to regret than ‘satisficers’ or those who accept good enough.
Losses are weighted about twice as much as gains in many contexts. It can be much higher if a decision pertains to aspects of your life that are more important than money, like health. The reluctance to ‘sell’ important endowments increases dramatically when doing so might make us responsible for a terrible outcome. For example, we’ll be willing to pay a significant but limited price to take a drug that would save our life from a definitely lethal disease that we have a 1/1,000 chance of contracting, having been exposed to the pathogen. But we’ll demand a far higher price to volunteer to expose ourselves to this pathogen for research purposes when no treatment is available. The latter will also leave us feeling absolutely responsible for engaging in the gamble if the outcome is lamentable when the default was to do nothing.
In another thought experiment, if there’s an insecticide with a risk of inhalation and child poisoning of 1.5/1,000 and another with a risk of 1.6/1,000 – most parents will not purchase the second product for any amount of price reduction relative to the first product. The idea of trading the safety of their child for any monetary amount is considered repugnant.
Other parents will demand a price reduction that’s significantly larger than the amount they’re willing to pay extra for a larger improvement in the safety of the product i.e. the gratification from doing better than the default (e.g. an insecticide with a 1.4/1,000 risk) won’t feel as great as the agony from doing worse than the default (e.g. an insecticide with a 1.6/1,000 risk), even though one would think that improving a product would be similar to preventing it from being worse! This is related to hedonic adaptation – like how we get used to the size of television we currently have, and going down in size will feel more painful than the pleasure of going up in size. All else being equal, consumption can therefore only rise, resulting in an unsustainable hedonic treadmill effect. Pains and pleasures, risks and rewards, downgrading and upgrading, aren’t weighted equally.
It’s understandable for parents to refuse to trade even a minute increase in risk to their child for money, but we must understand the opportunity costs – for the minute increase in risk, parents could use this saved money to decrease the risk for their child more greatly elsewhere (e.g. purchasing a safer car). So we need a broad-frame view.
The taboo trade-off against accepting any increase in risk in one area isn’t an optimal way to manage risks or utilise a limited budget. In fact, our own fear of regret may hold us back from optimising our child’s overall safety. Salespeople frequently exploit this behaviour to sell you the most expensive item, claiming that it’s the safest.
Another example of avoiding options that might be practically sensible but are considered morally taboo, is pondering the possibility of allowing people to sell one of their kidneys for money or some other in-kind reward. This would save many lives. But one criticism is that the poor would be exploited for the benefit of the rich. This would somewhat be like rich students paying poorer students to do their homework for them. The poorest would also likely accept derisory offers. Another criticism is that body parts are simply sacred thus should never be traded like commodities. Some topics or counterfactuals are considered too taboo to even discuss, like in a ‘how can you put a price on that?’ way, without the risk of possibly getting ‘cancelled’.
We spend much of our time anticipating and trying to avoid the emotional pains we might self-inflict – like the fear of failure, regret or responsibility – even though in many cases our anticipations are erroneous. Rational individuals aren’t supposed to care about these intangible self-administered punishments, and occasional fluffy rewards. But these emotions feel real to us thus to ignore that we feel, or to suggest that we shouldn’t feel, what we feel would be naïve. (Individuals with amygdala damage may exhibit little/no loss aversion in their risky choices, but most people don’t have such damage.)
Being explicitly aware of the susceptibility to anticipate regret, and of the hindsight bias, may lessen their effects though. One possible hindsight policy is to be either extremely thorough or completely casual when making a decision with long-term consequences – hindsight is worse when you think just enough to later tell yourself ‘I almost made a better choice’.
We do tend to anticipate more regret than we’ll actually experience though, due to hedonic adaptation and our ‘psychological immune system’ – so don’t put too much weight on regret even if you feel some because it’ll hurt less, or at least for less long, than you may think. Affective forecasting reveals that the emotional effects of dreadful (e.g. paraplegia) and wonderful (e.g. winning the lottery) events aren’t usually as terrible or as monumental respectively, and/or don’t last as long, as we predict.