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    ment in regret is the comparability of a decision outcome with the outcomes forgone. Up to now, however, the comparison processthat is so essential to the experience of regret has not been the subject of psychological research. In this article, we tune in on the com-parison dependency of regret. We argue that factors that reduce the tendency to compare attenuate regret, and demonstrate thatuncertainty about counterfactual outcomes (Experiment 1), and incomparability of counterfactual and factual outcomes (Experi-ments 2 and 3) produce such eVects. 2005 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

    Keywords: Regret; Comparability; Uncertainty

    Regret is a negative emotion that we experience whenwe realize or imagine that our present situation wouldhave been better, if only we had decided diVerently. It isa common experience that has serious behavioral impli-cations for our day-to-day behavior. These may stemfrom both the anticipation and experience of this emo-tion (for reviews, Connolly & Zeelenberg, 2002; Zeelen-berg, 1999; Zeelenberg, Inman, & Pieters, 2001). Hence,this emotion has attracted the attention of researchers indiverse Welds, such as economics (Bell, 1982; Loomes &Sugden, 1982), marketing (e.g., Inman, Dyer, & Jia,1997), medicine (e.g., Brehaut et al., 2003), law (e.g.,Guthrie, 1999), and in experimental (e.g., Mellers, Sch-wartz, & Ritov, 1999), social (e.g., Zeelenberg, van derPligt, & Manstead, 1998), and cross-cultural psychology(e.g., Gilovich, Wang, Regan, & Nishina, 2003). To fully

    our insights into the psychology of this emotion and theprocesses that may moderate it.

    To feel regret, one needs to run a mental simulation ofwhat happened and what could have happened instead,and compare the two (Kahneman & Miller, 1986). Thus,regret is related to counterfactual thoughts about whatcould have been (Ritov, 1996; Roese, 1997), and henceis the end result of a comparison process. Prior research,however, has mostly neglected this comparison process,and has paid little attention to how factual compare tocounterfactual outcomes. As a result, we argue, thisresearch has painted a rather incomplete picture of theconditions that generate regret.

    Fundamental diVerences between factual and Organizational Behavior and Human Dec

    On the psychology of if only: Refactual and counte

    Eric van Dijk a,, Ma Department of Social and Organizational Psychology, Leiden

    b Department of Economic and Social Psyc

    Received 1


    People experience regret when they realize that they would hav0749-5978/$ - see front matter 2005 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2005.04.001

    understand regrets impact, it is important to develop

    * Corresponding author. Fax: +31 71 5273619.E-mail address: Dijk@fsw.leidenuniv.nl (E. van Dijk).ion Processes 97 (2005) 152160


    ret and the comparison between factual outcomes

    arcel Zeelenberg b

    niversity, P.O. Box 9555, 2300 RB Leiden, The Netherlandslogy, Tilburg University, The Netherlands

    May 2004

    been better oV had they decided diVerently. Hence, a central ele-counterfactual outcomes

    In the following, we draw attention to two fundamen-tal diVerences between factual and counterfactual out-comes that we deem relevant with respect to the

  • rE. van Dijk, M. Zeelenberg / Organizational Behavio

    comparison process that elicits regret. The Wrst issue per-taining to this process is that whereas people will oftenbe certain about the factual outcomes they obtained, theoutcomes they could have obtained will typically be sur-rounded with uncertainty. For example, we may knowthe salary we currently earn, but we are often not certainabout the exact salary we would have obtained if onlywe had studied Wnance rather than psychology. Howdoes this potential uncertainty about what might havebeen aVect regret?

    The second issue is that even if we are certain aboutwhat we missed out on, these counterfactual outcomesmay be of a diVerent kind than the outcomes we actu-ally obtained. What diVerence does it make whetherafter buying a car, one Wnds out that a similar car wasavailable for $100 less, or whether a dissimilar car wasavailable for $100 less? How does reduced comparabil-ity between actual and factual outcomes aVect regret?This is a basic question that taps directly into the com-parison that is believed to be so central to the emotionof regret, but to our knowledge it has not beenaddressed before.

    Using an experimental setup, we will argue and dem-onstrate that both uncertainty about counterfactual out-comes and comparability of counterfactual outcomeswith the factual outcome are factors that have a directimpact on the emotion regret.

    Experiment 1: Uncertainty about what could have been

    In the Wrst experiment, we address the eVect of uncer-tainty about forgone outcomes. To examine this, weinvestigated the eVect of uncertainty that people experi-ence when they know the range of possible outcomesthey might have obtained had they decided diVerently,but they do not know exactly which of these possibleoutcomes it would have been. How do people deal withsuch uncertainty? To the extreme, our basic propositionis that people do not deal with it. That is, we suggest thatuncertainty about what could have been may keep peo-ple from experiencing regret. Our present reasoning isbased on research on the disjunction eVect (ShaWr &Tversky, 1992; Tversky & ShaWr, 1992; see also Van Dijk& Zeelenberg, 2003) that suggests that uncertainty andambiguity may induce people to engage in nonconse-quential reasoning. That is, if people are uncertain ofwhich outcomes will be obtained, they are less likely tothink through the consequences of the possible out-comes.

    The disjunction eVect and its relation to nonconse-quential reasoning can best be illustrated by discussinga study of Tversky and ShaWr (1992). In this scenariostudy, participants had to imagine that they had takenan exam: they either had to imagine failing the exam or

    passing the exam, or that they did not know whether and Human Decision Processes 97 (2005) 152160 153

    they had failed or passed. The main dependent variablewas the willingness to purchase a vacation to Hawaii.The results showed that both participants who hadlearned that they passed the test and participants whohad learned that they failed the test were likely to pur-chase the vacation. Interestingly, those who were stillignorant about their test result were unlikely to pur-chase the vacation. These Wndings suggest that peoplemay not think through the consequences of uncertainoutcomes. After all, should the participants have takenthe consequences into account they would have pur-chased the vacation. They would buy the vacation ifthey failed, also if they passed the exam, so if theywould think through the two possible outcomes (eitheryou fail or you pass), they should also opt to purchasethe vacation when being ignorant about the testoutcome.

    The research on the disjunction eVect thus suggests areluctance to base decisions on uncertain information. Ina similar vein, we suggest that people may not base theiremotions on the consequences of what could have been ifwhat could have been remains uncertain to them. If so,this would imply that people are less likely to suVer fromaversive regret experiences. In our Wrst experimentalstudy, we put this reasoning to the test.

    For this purpose, we designed a scenario study inwhich participants learned that they participated in agame in which several prizes could be won. All partici-pants were informed that they had won a stress ball(i.e., a little ball that you squeeze to reduce stress). Inaddition, they received information about the prizethey would have won had they chosen diVerently.Some participants read that the missed prize was aCD of their choosing. Others read that they missedout on a walkman, and some that they missed out on adinner for two. We also included a condition in whichparticipants were uncertain about their missed prize,and all that they knew was that the missed prize waseither a CD of their choosing, a walkman, or a dinnerfor two.


    Social Science students at Leiden University (47males; 61 females; and Mage D 21.7 years) participatedvoluntarily. They were randomly assigned to one condi-tion of a 4-group design (27 participants per condition).They read the following scenario:

    Imagine that you participate in a game in which severalprizes can be won. To make the game interesting, theprizes are hidden behind closed doors. Now it is yourturn to choose one out of two doors. Whatever will bebehind the door of your choosing, will be yours. Youpick a door, and behind this door you Wnd a stress ball.

    After this, the organizers of the game show you that the

  • r154 E. van Dijk, M. Zeelenberg / Organizational Behavio

    prize behind the other door was [a CD of your choosing;walkman; dinner for two; either a CD of your choosing, ora walkman, or a dinner for two].

    After this, participants indicated to what extent theywould feel regret (1 D not at all; 9 D very much).

    In pretesting the material of Experiment 1, we con-ducted a pilot to test whether the manipulation ofuncertainty had the intended eVects on uncertainty byasking 52 participants (13 per condition) to whatextent they were uncertain about what prize would bebehind to other door (1 D absolutely uncertain;9 D absolutely certain). The results of this pretest indi-cated that our manipulation had the intended eVect,F (3, 48) D 12.79, p < .0001. LSD tests indicated thatparticipants in the Uncertain condition were signiW-cantly less certain (M D 1.00) than participants in theother three conditions, that did not diVer signiWcantlyfrom each other (Mdinner for two D 7.23; Mwalkman D 7.00;and MCD D 6.15).

    Results and discussion

    The results of Experiment 1 are shown in Table 1. Aone-way ANOVA yielded a signiWcant eVect,F (3, 104) D 15.35, p < .01. LSD-comparisons (p < .05)showed that regret was signiWcantly lower for partici-pants missing out on a CD than for participants missingout on the more expensive prizes, a dinner for two andwalkman. Of course, the most interesting result was that,as predicted, regret was signiWcantly lower in the Uncer-tain condition than in the other conditions. These Wnd-ings corroborate the reasoning that uncertainty aboutwhat could have been mitigates the experience of regret.They also constitute the Wrst generalization of the dis-junction eVect to emotions.

    These Wndings suggest that uncertainty about whatcould have been may reduce feelings of regret. If we areuncertain about what could have been, we are less likelyto think through the consequences of what could havebeen, and therefore less likely to compare what is withwhat could have been. Does this mean that if we arecertain about what could have been, we will inevitablybe very susceptible to regret? In the search for a satisfac-tory answer to this question, it is again informative toaddress the comparison process that is at the basis ofregret. This is what we did in Experiment 2.

    Table 1Mean regret ratings per condition, Experiment 1

    Note. Means with diVerent superscripts diVer signiWcantly (LSD,p < .05). Ratings were made on a 9-point scale (1 D absolutely not;

    Uncertain Certain

    CD Dinner for two Walkman

    4.41a 5.96b 7.04c 6.89c9 D very much). and Human Decision Processes 97 (2005) 152160

    Experiment 2: Comparability of what could have been with what is

    Not all outcomes are equally easy to compare.Sometimes comparisons are fairly easy. For example,in the case of the investor who realizes that the shareshe sold suddenly increased in value, and that he wouldhave earned $10,000 more if he had not sold the shares.But as we noted in our introduction, this example maybe more of an exception than a rule. Often, the counter-factual outcomes will be of a diVerent kind than thefactual outcomes. So, what if you know that you havegot an orange, and you also know with certainty thatyou would have gotten two apples should you havedecided diVerently? Comparing apples to oranges is adiYcult task. In more theoretical terms, this impliesthat comparisons can diVer in complexity. As Medin,Goldstone, and Markman (1995, p. 8) alreadyreasoned:

    not all comparisons are equally easy to make; compar-isons that involve substantially diVerent properties arediYcult. It is easier, for example, to compare the mer-its of Mendelssohn and Schumann than to comparethe merits of Schumann and the Beatles. It may bepossible to convert both Schumann and the Beatlesinto generic utilities, but this process seems to requiremore work than comparing items that have similaraspects.

    If comparability lies at the heart of regret, the(in)comparability of factual and counterfactual out-comes may be another feature explaining why we do notconstantly go about kicking ourselves over forgone out-comes. We investigated this hypothesized moderatingeVect of comparability on regret by presenting our par-ticipants a scenario in which they engaged in a lottery.Half of the participants learned that they had won a D15liquor store token. The others learned that they had wona D15 book token. After this, participants were informedthat they would have won another prize had theydecided diVerently. We also manipulated the missedprize. It was either a D50 book token or a D50 liquorstore token.

    With this design, we were able to manipulate com-parability (Johnson, 1984). The factual and counter-factual outcomes are comparable if the prize won andthe missed prize are in the same product category(either both book tokens or both liquor tokens) andrelatively incomparable if they are in a diVerentproduct category (i.e., you win a book token, but missout on a liquor token, or you win a liquor token andmiss out on a book token). Our basic hypothesis wasthat regret would be more intense if the missed prizeand the prize won came from the same product cate-gory than if they came from a diVerent product


  • rE. van Dijk, M. Zeelenberg / Organizational Behavio


    Social Science students at Leiden University (66males; 114 females; and Mage D 21.08 years) participatedvoluntarily. They were randomly assigned to one of thefour conditions of a 2 (Own prize: D15 book token vs.D15 liquor store token) 2 (Missed prize: D50 booktoken vs. D50 liquor store token) factorial design (45participants per condition). They read the following sce-nario:

    Imagine walking through your home town. You run intoa small fair. It appears that they have a lottery, withinstant scratch card lottery tickets. You doubt whetheryou will buy a scratch card because they are expensive.But since the lottery guarantees you to win a prize, youdecide to take a chance. You are just in time, there areonly two scratch cards left. You doubt which one totake, but eventually you choose one. You open thescratch card and as it turns out, you have won a liquorstore token [book token] for D15. After this, you noticesomeone else buying the scratch card that was left, theone you did not choose. This other person wins a book...