The hidden source of regret

New psychology research uncovers a “hidden source” of regret
Patricia Y. Sanchez

Regret is an important emotion for the study of human decision-making. New research published in Psychological Science found that being able to observe our forgone alternatives (as opposed to them being uncertain or unknown) may reduce the feelings of regret associated with our decisions.

“Regret has been described as a counterfactual emotion that arises when a decision lacks ex post justification or results in an outcome that falls short of a standard of comparison,” wrote study authors Daniel Feiler and Johannes Müller-Trede. “Typically, this standard of comparison is determined by the concrete outcomes of unchosen options.”

Some research shows we feel more regret in our decisions when we can see the outcomes of the choices we did not make (i.e., the forgone alternative) compared to unknown or uncertain outcomes. The study authors suggest this could be due to our tendency to overestimate the attractiveness of our desired choices. “We use the term forgone alternative to refer to the second-most preferred option from the large consideration set, that is, the final contender that was ultimately rejected.”

For Study 1, they recruited 800 adult participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), an online research platform. Participants were told that they were playing a virtual dating app and saw several faces and identified which they found the most attractive. Participants chose which gender of faces they would like to see. Specifically, they were given 9 photos and were told to pick their top 2. After that, they were presented with these two photos and told to pick one. The photos were blurred so that the features of those pictured could not be discerned.

Afterward, their chosen option was revealed unblurred. Participants were randomly assigned to either see their unchosen, second choice unblurred (alternative-blurred condition) or see their second-choice photo unblurred as well (alternative-revealed condition). Next, participants rated how much regret they felt in their choice. They also rated the attractiveness of their chosen option and their second, unchosen option. Those in the alternative-blurred condition were asked to estimate the attractiveness of the unchosen option. Seventy-two photos of similar age and attractiveness level were chosen from the Chicago Face Database.

Participants in the alternative-blurred condition felt more regret in their decision than those in the alternative-revealed condition. Further, those in the alternative-blurred condition expected their second choice to be more attractive than those in the alternative-revealed condition rated their second choices to be. There were no differences in perceived attractiveness of the chosen option across conditions.

Although seemingly contradictory with previous research, this finding is consistent with researchers’ expectations due to our general likelihood to overestimate our most desired choices. In other words, participants were likely still able to overestimate the attractiveness of the uncertain outcome leading them to feel more regret than those who could concretely compare the attractiveness of their choice to the other option.

In Study 2, researchers sought to conceptually replicate findings from Study 1 in a different context. They recruited 599 adult participants from MTurk. Participants were given the role of a recruiter at a consulting firm, and they were presented with 10 job candidates and information about their overall abilities. They were instructed to hire the candidate with the highest ability and were financially incentivized to make a good choice.

Participants were once again told to create a shortlist of two options before making a final decision. Next, participants were given scores of their chosen candidates “true ability” taken by human resources several months after being hired. They were also reminded of their second, unchosen option. Now participants were randomly assigned to either also see the true ability score of their shortlisted, unchosen candidate (alternative-revealed condition) or be reminded of the scores used during the hiring process (alternative-concealed condition). Participants then rated regret in their hiring decision.

In line with findings from Study 1, those in the alternative-concealed condition reported feeling more regret than those in the alternative-revealed condition. Thus, Study 2 further supports the prediction that being able to observe the outcomes of unchosen options may reduce regret.

Study 3 was identical to Study 2 except with the addition of an estimation of the forgone alternative’s true ability. One-hundred and fifty-seven adult participants were recruited from MTurk for this study. Results show that people’s estimates of the forgone candidate’s abilities were higher than their true ability. Results also show an association between higher estimates of the forgone candidate’s abilities and greater regret.

Study 4 was almost identical to Study 3 except for an additional experimental manipulation (197 adults were recruited from MTurk). After they made their hiring decision, participants were randomly assigned to either get the optimal estimate of the forgone candidate’ ability using information from the hiring process (debias condition) or not (control condition). Results show that those in the debias condition felt less regret than those in the control condition suggesting that information about the true ability of the forgone alternative did indeed reduce the regret people reported feeling.

Overall, results indicate that overestimation of forgone alternatives are important for feelings of regret in our decision-making. Some limitations to this work include the predominantly White and U.S. based sample and the exclusion of other possible standards of comparison.

The study, “The One That Got Away Overestimation of Forgone Alternatives as a Hidden Source of Regret“, was published January 21, 2022.

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