The elements of regret: Where the head and heart collide

By Amy Summerville & Joshua Buchanan

When making decisions, people often feel like they are trying to find a balance between the “head”, their rational thoughts and decision processes, and the “heart”, their gut feelings and emotional responses. In fact, there are plenty of decision-making theories that have offered explanations of how these two factors have distinct influences on the decisions that people make.

Less work, however, has looked at how these two factors may both be present in people’s reactions to decisions they have already made. The experience of regret represents an intersection of these two dimensions. Decision scientists in psychology define regret as a negative emotion that results from the belief that things could have been better if one had behaved differently in the past. That is, regret involves both cognitions, thoughts about how a decision could have turned out differently, and affect, negative feelings about the decision and its outcome. However, in research, these two dimensions of regret are usually lumped together. Most of the time researchers ask participants one or two straightforward questions such as “Do you regret your decision?” Other researchers instead focus on comparing regret to different emotions like disappointment. In our research with colleagues Jochen Reb and Jennifer Lehmann, we wanted to see if these two elements of regret–cognitions and affect-could be measured separately, and whether they predicted different outcomes.

To test this, we asked 150 people to recall a decision that had turned out poorly and then answer a large number of questions that might relate to feeling regret about the decision. We then examined patterns in how people answered these questions and found two main clusters of questions that people tended to answer in similar ways. The first cluster, which we called the affective component, focused on the ways that people felt about their decision, with questions like “I feel like kicking myself”. The second cluster, which we called the cognitive component, focused on the specific thoughts people had about their decision-making, like “I should have decided differently.”

We then created a new scale, the Regret Elements Scale, which included 5 questions that measured the affective component of regret, and 5 questions that measured the cognitive component of regret. We then asked a different group of 180 people to recall a decision that hadn’t turned out well and rate their thoughts and feelings using this new 10-item scale. We found that although the ratings of affective and cognitive components of regret were related to each other, they were distinct parts of how people evaluated their decisions that couldn’t just be lumped together as one unified experience.

The most promising aspect of this new scale is the potential that it has to help us understand when regret may be helpful rather than counterproductive. Obviously, regret is unpleasant, and previous research suggests that it is associated with negative mental health outcomes like depression and anxiety. However, in our research, we found that only the affective component of the scale was associated with these maladaptive outcomes. Being able to identify when regret is mostly emotional may help decision scientists and mental health researchers understand when and why people might have problematic reactions to their decisions. Future research can investigate whether regrets about more severe outcomes, or about relatively more emotional domains like relationships, might coincide with more emotional regret.

On the other hand, the thoughts about “what might have been” that drive regret, known as counterfactual thoughts, can play a very positive role in decision-making. These thoughts help people reason about cause and effect— for instance “If only we’d contacted their references, we might not have hired that problematic employee” identifies a lack of reference-checking, rather than other application or training procedures, as the cause of a personnel problem at the company. These thoughts can therefore help people form intentions about their future behavior and make different, better informed, decisions in the future, such as switching service providers. We expect that the cognitive component of the Regret Elements Scale should identify when regret will produce these strategic benefits. That is, people who are mostly focused on their thoughts about their decision making, rather than their feelings, may be the most likely to use their regrets to productively develop new strategies and improve their future decision making.

In short, our research found that the old adage of the head battling the heart doesn’t just apply to the factors that influence our decisions, but that the head and the heart are both important facets of how we react when decisions don’t turn out how we hoped.


Further reading: Buchanan, J., Summerville, A., Lehmann, J. & Reb, J. (2016). The Regret Elements Scale: Distinguishing the affective and cognitive components of regret. Judgment and Decision Making, 11(3), 275-286

Funding Acknowledgement: This work was funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation, EEC-1530627

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