What causes most regret?

We feel regret both for chances we missed in the past and opportunities our decisions today will cost us in future, but which do people regret most?

We all have to make them – small or big decisions about education, career, romance or even leisure time, and it is sometimes surprising what a strong emotional experience it can be.

Regret is, in fact, one of the most frequently experienced emotions in human emotional life. Even though it can be a very unpleasant experience, it also drives us to learn from our mistakes and improve the quality of our future decisions. It is also one of the possible reasons why there has been an increased interest in past research.

But what causes more regret? The chances you missed in the past or the things that will have a negative impact in the future because of decisions that you make in the present? The authors Shani, Danziger, and Zeelenberg tried to answer exactly this question and made a direct comparison between regret that is caused by a missed opportunity in the past and regret that is related to a future missed opportunity. They demonstrated that possible future regret could influence people’s decision making more than regret caused by a past miss. We tried to shed further light on these findings.

The original experiment gave the participant a scenario where a choice had to be made between two importers that offer the same mug for the same price. One importer offered the mug at a discounted price in the past and the other importer will offer the mug at a discounted price in the future.

According to the suggestions in the further research section of their article, we modified their experiment by changing the joint evaluation into a separate evaluation. The participants had to evaluate the importers twice as they initially only received the information about one discount event, and after the presentation of a second scenario, they had to reevaluate their preferences with the knowledge of the second discount event.

That way, we were able to collect data for each situation separately as well as combinations of situations, with different orders of the missed opportunities. Additionally, we could also evaluate to what extent they changed their mind when introducing the new information.

The results showed that when the situations were separated, people felt more regret for a past miss. This was a surprising outcome for us because we expected to further prove the finding from the original study. Furthermore, they preferred mostly to purchase from the importer connected to the future miss, which also remains in sharp contrast to the findings of the previous study.

Another finding, however, was that introducing the future miss as new information had more influence on changing their mind about their feelings of regret. This in turn strengthens the theory that a future miss has a greater impact.

We think that a better insight into this concept could be important for the corporate sector, should companies for example need to decide how far in advance they can announce a discount. If customers feel too much regret for missing the future discount, they will have negative associations with the product and enjoy the product less.

Even though this remains a complex issue and a question that has not yet been answered in full, we regard contradicting results as a step forward to better understand the psychological mechanisms of past and future regret.

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