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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 booktoken [liquor store token] of D50.

    After this, participants were asked how much regretthey would feel (1 D not at all; 7 D very much).

    Results and discussion

    A 2 (Own prize) 2 (Missed prize) ANOVA on theregret ratings only yielded a signiWcant interaction,F (1, 176) D 11.07 p < .001. Table 2 shows that, in agree-ment with the notion that comparability is at the basisof regret, and that incomparability may shield peoplefrom the experience of regret, participants winning abook token reported less regret when missing out on theD50 liquor store token (M D 3.91) than when missingout on the D50 book token (M D 4.71), F (1, 176) D 4.37,p < .05. Participants winning a liquor store tokenreported less regret when missing out on the D50 booktoken (M D 3.64) than when missing out on the D50liquor store token (M D 4.64), F (1, 176) D 6.83, p < .01.Thus, more regret is anticipated when the obtained out-come and the missed outcome come from the same cate-gory as compared to when they come from diVerentcategories.

    Table 2Mean regret ratings per condition, Experiment 2

    Note. Ratings were made on a 7-point scale (1 D absolutely not;

    Own prize Missed prize

    Book token Liquor store token

    Book token 4.71 3.91Liquor store token 3.64 4.647 D very much). and Human Decision Processes 97 (2005) 152160 155

    Experiment 3: Comparability and the need to compare

    Experiment 2 provided support for the idea thatregret is related to outcome comparability. Anotherissue to consider here is that individuals diVer in theextent to which they compare outcomes, especially in thesituations that we have described here. Note that inExperiment 2, participants learned that the counterfac-tual outcome accrued to another individual. In this case,counterfactual thinking and social comparison go handin hand (Larrick, 1993; Olson, Buhrmann, & Roese,2000).

    In real life, people often learn about the outcomes for-gone by comparing their own outcomes to those of oth-ers. As a result, the outcomes of others may serve ascounterfactual reference points when decision-makersrealize that it could have been them. People are verysensitive to the outcomes of others, and decision-makerscan be especially dissatisWed when others receive a betteroutcome. Previous research has shown that these socialcomparison eVects can also contribute to the regret thatpeople may feel in response to a decision that goes awry(Boles & Messick, 1995; Kumar, 2004; Zeelenberg &Pieters, 2004). The observation that social comparisonsmay play a role suggests an additional opportunity totest our reasoning by studying individual diVerences.Gibbons and Buunk (1999) recently argued that somepeople are more than others likely to engage in socialcomparison. They constructed a reliable and validatedscale (the IowaNetherlands comparison orientationmeasure; INCOM) for measuring such individual diVer-ences in social comparison orientation. In Experiment 3,we used this new insight to further explore the eVect ofcomparability we revealed in Experiment 2.

    The Wndings of Experiment 2 suggest that if the com-parison of factual with counterfactual outcomesbecomes more diYcult (cf. Medin et al., 1995) people areless likely to experience regret. But of course, more diY-cult does not mean impossible. With a high motivationto engage in comparison, people may be expected toengage in comparisons, even if these turn out to be diY-cult ones. Based on this reasoning, and using the sameparadigm as in Experiment 2, we expected that the eVectof ease of comparability would be moderated by individ-ual diVerences in the need to compare.

    For our study, we administered the INCOM measure(Gibbons & Buunk, 1999) to identify people with a highvs. low need to compare. To investigate the eVect of com-parison orientation, on regret ratings, we presented themwith the scratch card scenario. All participants read thatthey had won a D15 book token. Half of them read thatthey missed out on a D50 book token, whereas the otherhalf read that they missed out on a D50 liquor storetoken. Our main hypothesis was that people with a highneed to compare would be less inXuenced by the diY-

    culty to compare, and thus that they would suVer from

  • r156 E. van Dijk, M. Zeelenberg / Organizational Behavio

    regret when Wnding out that someone else had obtainedhigher outcomes, even if these outcomes were in a diVer-ent product category than the prize that they themselvesobtained.


    First-year Social Science students at Tilburg Univer-sity (11 males, 63 females; and Mage D 19.42 years) par-ticipated voluntarily. They were randomly assigned toone of the four conditions of (Missed prize: D50 booktoken vs. D50 liquor store token) 2 (comparison orien-tation: low vs. high) factorial design.

    In the beginning of the academic year, we adminis-tered the IowaNetherlands comparison orientationmeasure (INCOM; Gibbons & Buunk, 1999) to a groupof Wrst-year students (D 0.69). The INCOM consists of11 items that measure the comparison orientation (e.g.,I always pay a lot of attention to how I do things com-pared with how others do things; I always like to knowwhat others in a similar situation would do).

    Eight months later, we contacted the students whosescore fell in the highest 30-percentile range of the socialcomparison scores (i.e., those with a relatively high need tocompare) and the students whose score fell in the lowest30-percentile range (i.e., those with a relatively low need tocompare). We asked them to participate in a study and wepresented them with the scratch card scenario.

    Participants read the scenario of Experiment 2, inwhich now all participants read that they had won abook token for D15. As in Experiment 2, participantsread that the remaining scratch card was bought bysomeone else, and that this other person won a booktoken [liquor store token] of D50. After this, participantswere asked how much regret they would feel (1 D not atall; 9 D very much).

    Results and discussion

    A 2 (Missed prize) 2 (comparison orientation)ANOVA on the regret ratings yielded a signiWcant maineVect of comparison orientation, F (1, 70) D 4.91, p < .05,a marginal signiWcant main eVect of missed prize,F (1, 70) D 3.77, p < .06, and a signiWcant interaction,F (1, 70) D 4.00, p < .05.

    The main eVect of comparison orientation indicatedthat participants with a high need to compare (M D 6.44)reported more regret than participants with a low needto compare (M D 5.37). The marginally signiWcant maineVect of missed prize indicated that participants tendedto report less regret when the missed prize was from adiVerent product category as the obtained prize (i.e., aliquor store token; M D 5.55) than when it was from thesame category (i.e., a book token; M D 6.38).

    In agreement with our main hypothesis, these two

    main eVects were qualiWed by the signiWcant interaction. and Human Decision Processes 97 (2005) 152160

    Participants with a relative low need for comparisonreported less regret when the missed prize was from adiVerent product category as the obtained prize (i.e., aliquor store token; M D 4.65) than when it was from thesame category (i.e., a book token; M D 6.30,F (1,70) D 7.35, p < .010). Consistent with our reasoning,participants with a high need for comparison gave highregret ratings regardless of the product category of themissed prize (Mbooktoken D 6.42; Mliquorstore token D 6.45),F (1,70) D .002, n.s., see Table 3.

    These Wndings are not only important because theycorroborate the view that social comparison processesmay add to regret (cf. Boles & Messick, 1995; Kumar,2004; Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2004). For the current pur-pose, these Wndings are of special importance becausethey support our notion that to understand the psycho-logical process leading up to regret, it is useful to explic-itly investigate the comparison process that lies at thebasis of regret. In particular, the Wndings suggest a moti-vational dependency of the eVect of comparability wedocumented in Experiment 2, in the sense that diYcultyto compare may be overcome if the need for comparisonis high.

    General discussion

    Regret is rooted in a comparison of actual decisionoutcomes with counterfactual outcomes. In this article,we used this observation to gain more insight into thecomparison process underlying regret. In particular, wewere able to demonstrate that vulnerability to regret ismoderated by the uncertainty people may experienceregarding counterfactual outcomes, and the comparabil-ity of counterfactual outcomes with factual outcomes.The more fundamental contribution to regret research isthat these Wndings bear directly on the comparison thatunderlies regret.

    We are not the Wrst to theorize on the role of potentialmoderators regarding counterfactual outcomes. Forexample, Seelau, Seelau, Wells, and Windschitl (1995)argued that people do not consider all counterfactualoutcomes and maintained that some counterfactual out-comes may be less available in memory and appear lesslucid to people. The results of Experiment 1 add to this

    Table 3Mean regret ratings per condition, Experiment 3

    Note. Ratings were made on a 9-point scale (1 D absolutely not;9 D very much).

    Comparison orientation

    Missed prize

    Same category (book token)

    DiVerent category (liquor store token)

    Low 6.30 4.60High 6.42 6.45literature by investigating the moderating eVect of uncer-

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

    tainty, and introducing a novel connection between coun-terfactual thinking and nonconsequential reasoning.Prior research on counterfactual reasoning implicitlyassumed that if people generate counterfactuals (eitherbecause they generate these themselves or because theyare oVered some counterfactuals by the researcher), thesecounterfactual outcomes are consequential in the sensethat they will be entered as an input in the comparison ofwhat is with what could have been. The literature on non-consequential reasoning (ShaWr & Tversky, 1992; VanDijk & Zeelenberg, 2003) stresses that people do notalways engage in consequential reasoning, and that onecrucial aspect to consider is the (un)certainty people mayexperience regarding outcomes. The current Wndings sug-gest that the fact that people may not think through theconsequences of uncertain counterfactual outcomes maybe a blessing because it may protect people from the aver-sive feeling of regret.

    The second and third experiments on the comparabil-ity of counterfactual and factual outcomes illustrate asimilar process in the sense that people may be less likelyto engage in comparative reasoning if comparisons aremore diYcult to make. In this article, we show how thediYculty to compare may aVect feelings of regret. In par-ticular, the Wndings suggest that if outcomes are diYcultto compare, people may be less likely to experienceregret. As Experiment 3 shows, however, this regret-reducing aspect of the diYculty to compare can be over-come if the motivation to compare is high.

    On a more general level, our insights can be related toTversky and GriYns (1991) contrast and endowmentmodel of well-being that states that current well-being isnot only dependent on current outcomes, but also onpast experiences. The eVect of endowment represents adirect eVect of past outcomes: positive experiences makeus happy and negative experiences make us unhappy.The contrast eVect is more indirect. Satisfaction withcurrent outcomes may be increased if the outcomes arepreceded by a negative experience, because people maycontrast their current outcome with their negative expe-rience. Satisfaction with current outcomes may bedecreased if the outcomes are preceded by a positiveexperience, because people may contrast their currentoutcome with their positive experience. This contrasteVect is fueled by comparison. In this respect, it is note-worthy that Tversky and GriYn also reasoned that com-parability of the past with the present may moderate thecontrast eVect. Contrast diminishes as the comparabilityof the past with the present diminishes: a bad meal at aChinese restaurant has less eVect on our reactions to asubsequent meal if we enjoy that meal in a French res-taurant than if we enjoy it in a Chinese restaurant. Thecurrent Wndings are not only supportive of that reason-ing, they also suggest that the basic reasoning extendsbeyond the temporal context of past versus current out-

    comes and well-being. and Human Decision Processes 97 (2005) 152160 157

    A connection can also be made to Slovic, GriYn, andTverskys (1990) theorizing on the concept of compati-bility. Slovic et al. investigated to what extent the com-patibility between stimulus and response scale aVects theweight that people assign to a stimulus attribute. Theirbasic prediction was that the weight of a stimulus attri-bute is greater when it matches the response scale thanwhen it does not. To illustrate: in their Study 2, Slovic etal. had participants predict the performance of 10 targetstudents in a history course on the basis of the studentsperformance in two other courses (English literature andphilosophy). For each of the target students, participantswere given a letter grade (from A+ to D) in one courseand a class rank (from 1 to 100) in the other course. Par-ticipants then had to predict how the students wouldperform in a history class. Half of the participants had topredict the students grade. The other half of the partici-pants had to predict the students class rank. The resultsindicated that participants who had to predict the gradeput more weight on grade information, and participantswho had to predict class rank put more weight on classrank. The connection between this theorizing on com-patibility and our theorizing on comparability is that inboth cases it is assumed that comparisons that are moreeasy to make receive more weight in decision-making.Slovic et al., however, restricted their analysis to the rela-tion between stimulus and response scale, whereas weconcentrate on the comparison process of two stimuli(the comparison process that aVects the regretresponses).

    Another relation with comparability can be found inHsees theorizing on evaluability (e.g., Hsee, Loewen-stein, Blount, & Bazerman, 1999; Hsee & Zhang, 2004).A central theme in this theorizing is that some attributesare diYcult to evaluate, and that attributes that are diY-cult to evaluate have less impact on decision-making.With its focus on the ease of evaluation, the evaluabilityhypothesis shares some resemblance to our theorizing onthe ease of comparing factual to counterfactual out-comes. Of course, an important diVerence is that theevaluability hypothesis mainly pertains to the evaluationof outcomes people obtain. The central issue in our stud-ies is not whether outcomes are easy or diYcult to evalu-ate, but whether factual and counterfactual outcomesare easy or diYcult to compare.

    Another issue worthy of discussion is that in our sce-nario studies, regret ratings primarily reXected partici-pants predictions on how they would feel. Suchpredictions of anticipated regret are essential for deci-sion-making (Bell, 1982; Loomes & Sugden, 1982),because decision-makers will try to minimize anticipatedregret. Nevertheless, it should be acknowledged that pre-dictions regarding anticipated emotions need not beaccurate. For example, Gilbert and Ebert (2002) statedthat when people anticipate how they will feel, they

    insuYciently anticipate the post decisional processes

  • r158 E. van Dijk, M. Zeelenberg / Organizational Behavio

    such as dissonance reduction, self-deception, egodefense, emotion-based coping, and so forth. In a recentarticle, Gilbert, Morewedge, Risen, and Wilson (2004)found that people may overestimate the regret in thesense that experienced regret may be lower than antici-pated regret. The main explanation for this Wnding wasthat after a regretful experience, people may eYcientlyavoid self-blame. Because people do not anticipate thispsychological process when they have to predict howthey will feel, people overestimate regret. As Gilbert et al.put it: regret can be a bit of a boogeyman, loominglarger in prospect than it actually stands in experience(p. 349). With these Wndings, Gilbert et al. did not meanto downplay the importance of anticipated regret fordecision-making, and even noted that peoples decisionsare often based on their beliefs about how they wouldfeel (e.g., anticipated regret). Gilbert et al.s Wndings dosuggest that it is worthwhile in future research to com-plement the current Wndings on anticipated regret withassessments of experienced regret. That anticipations ofregret need not necessarily be inaccurate was demon-strated by Mellers et al. (1999) in their Experiment 4. Inthis experiment, they examined the resemblance betweenanticipated and actual emotions, and found that partic-ipants were good at predicting their feelings. Their pre-dictions were not perfect; they did not seem to anticipatesurprise, but they did anticipate the disappointment andregret they later experienced (p. 341). Interestingly, theynext speculated that prediction may especially be accu-rate in simple situations, as found in our paradigm. (p.341). Mellers et al. studied choices between two alterna-tives, which in terms of complexity seems similar to ourstudies in which we informed participants aboutobtained and missed outcomes.

    It may be noted that in our studies we used a single-item measurement of regret that was also used in previ-ous research on regret and decision making (e.g., Arkes,Kung, & Hutzel, 2002; Crawford, McConnell, Lewis, &Sherman, 2002; Kray, 2000; Kumar, 2004; Ordez &Connolly, 2000; Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2004; Zeelenberg,van den Bos, van Dijk, & Pieters, 2002; Zeelenberg, vanDijk, & Manstead, 2000). We thus stayed close to themethodology used in other experimental research tomeasure regret. One may wonder, however, whether wewould also have obtained these Wndings if we wouldhave used multiple items to measure regret. To addressthis question, we decided to test whether the results ofExperiment 1 would be replicated if we would measureregret with more items. In this replication of Experiment1 on 100 additional participants, we asked our partici-pants Wve questions: how much regret would you feel(i.e., the item we included in our studies), how badwould you consider your decision, to what extentwould you feel that you should have chosen the otherdoor, would you prefer to have chosen the other door,

    and to what extent would you regret your decision, all and Human Decision Processes 97 (2005) 152160

    to be answered on 9-point scales (1 D not at all; 9 D verymuch). These measures were combined to form a reliableregret scale (D 0.82). With this scale, the basicWndings of Experiment 1 were replicated. The regretmeasure was signiWcantly aVected by our manipulations(F (3, 96) D 4.79, p < .01). LSD-comparisons (p < .05)again showed that regret was signiWcantly lower in theUncertain condition (M D 5.02) than in the other condi-tions (Mdinner for two D 6.17; Mwalkman D 6.54; andMCD D 6.10). This suggests that the Wndings we reportedare not restricted to cases of single-item measurement.

    At this point, it is also appropriate to discuss the pos-sible limitations of using scenario studies to measure(anticipated) regret. Although scenario studies are oftenused in research, some authors stress that one should becareful and acknowledge the potential limitations of sce-nario studies. One of the most stringent positions in thisregard was advocated by Spencer (1978), who stated thathypothetical role-playing should only be used to assessdemand characteristics. On the other hand, Connolly,Ordez, and Coughlan (1997, p. 83) argued with regardto anticipated regret ratings, that scenario studies ade-quately measure what they should measure: if onesinterest in the area is in the possible decisional impact ofanticipated regret. Of special interest are the argumentsprovided by Greenberg and Eskew (1993). Their basicmessage was not that scenario studies are generally inap-propriate or appropriate. Rather, they made some inter-esting recommendations on how scenario studies mightlook like, based on what should be considered to be thebasic purpose of the studies. Restricting their argumentsto organizational behavior, Greenberg and Eskew dis-tinguished between two major purposes (p. 225): (a)describing the attitudes and/or behaviors of people in anorganizational setting and (b) examining the basichuman processes of perception, judgment, or cognition.Our current research Wts best with the latter purpose,and it is for this purpose that the authors recommendthat participants should have a low level of involvementand that responses should be limited. In this respect, theygave an example of a study on decision-making byOlshavsky (1979) in which participants had to imaginethat they were going on a ski trip to Aspen, or that theywere renting a stereo receiver. Information was limited,and this setup was described by Greenberg and Eskewnot as a problem, but even as a virtue (p. 237). In ouropinion, this setup very much resembles our setup, anddeWnitely our main purpose, that is to reveal basic infor-mation about the fundamental comparison process thatunderlies regret: the fact that counterfactuals regardingwhat could have been are often surrounded withuncertainty, and often of a diVerent kind than what is.

    Taken together, our studies show the beneWts a pro-cess oriented approach for the understanding of the psy-chology of if only. In particular, they indicate that the

    consequences of what could have been for how we feel

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

    may be limited if what could have been is of a diVerentkind than what is, either because the counterfactualoutcomes are uncertain, or because they are diYcult tocompare with our factual outcomes. We thus argue thatboth aspectsuncertainty and comparabilitymayeach attenuate feelings of regret because they both aVectthe tendency to compare factual to counterfactual out-comes. It may also be noted, that in our Experiment 1 onthe eVect of uncertainty, we used products that in termsof Experiments 2 and 3 could be described as less com-parable (i.e., CDs, dinner for two, walkman, and stressball). This raises the question of whether uncertaintyeVects would also be obtained in situations of greatercomparability. For example, what if one would learnthat one obtained 1 CD, and the missed prizes were 20CDs, 30 CDs, 40 CDs, or uncertain (i.e., either 20, 30, or40)? One could argue that in such a setting uncertaintymay not have a strong dampening eVect on regret ratingsbecause people may reason that even though it is uncer-tain whether one misses out on 20, 30, or 40 CDs, it iscertain that one at least misses out on 20 CDs.

    A recent study by Van Dijk and Zeelenberg (2003) oneVects of uncertainty on economic decision-making sug-gests, however, that even under such conditions the dis-junction eVect may operate. For example, in one of thesestudies it was investigated to what extent uncertaintywould aVect the likelihood of people to fall prey to thesunk cost eVect (Arkes & Blumer, 1985; i.e., the tendencyfor increased risk-taking after having incurred sunkcosts). To study this, participants were presented a typi-cal sunk cost scenario and either learned that the sunkcosts were low (500,000 Guilders), high (1.5 million Guil-ders), or that the size of the sunk costs were uncertain(i.e., at the minimum 500,000 Guilders and 1.5 millionGuilders at the maximum). The results indicated thatparticipants fell prey to the sunk cost eVect in the lowsunk costs condition, in the high sunk costs condition,but not in the uncertain sunk costs condition. That is, inline with the basic tenet of the disjunction eVect, partici-pants did not base their decisions on the uncertain infor-mation, even though in this case too, participants in theuncertain conditions could have reasoned that the costswould in any case be at least 500,000 Guilders. TheseWndings suggest that the disjunction eVect also operateswhen the outcomes involved under uncertainty are easyto compare.

    In a way, our Wndings may set the record straight onthe experience of regret. The formal deWnition of regret(i.e., regret results from an unfavorable comparison ofwhat is with what could have been) would lead oneto expect that the human kind is constantly haunted byfeelings of regret because there will always be inWniteways in which we might have obtained higher outcomesif only we had decided diVerently. The fact that many ofthese counterfactual outcomes are surrounded with

    uncertainty and/or are of a diVerent kind, may explain and Human Decision Processes 97 (2005) 152160 159

    why we manage to be happy with what we have gotrather than dwell on what we missed. The above alsosuggests that there may be a functional side to the mat-ter: uncertainty and incomparability may function as aprotective shield, attenuating excessive feelings of regret.In this respect, we believe that, in addition to cognitiveexplanations that focus on the cognitive complexity ofcomparing dissimilar outcomes (e.g., Medin et al., 1995)and thinking through uncertain situations (e.g., ShaWr,1994; ShaWr & Tversky, 1992), there may be a motiva-tional component at work. By excluding the unknownand the incomparable, we may be better able to experi-ence life without the constant nagging feeling of regret.


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    On the psychology of if only: Regret and the comparison between factual and counterfactual outcomesFundamental differences between factual and counterfactual outcomesExperiment 1: Uncertainty about what could have beenMethodResults and discussion

    Experiment 2: Comparability of what could have been with what isMethodResults and discussion

    Experiment 3: Comparability and the need to compareMethodResults and discussion

    General discussionReferences