Shadows Of Doubt

How regret can stymie decision-making

Shadows Of Doubt

Of all emotions, regret is one of the most important in decision-making, says Asst. Prof. Ellen Evers.

That nagging quality of self-blame and the desire to avoid it can have a major effect on our choices—from picking a stock to negotiating a deal. Just the anticipation of regret can cause people to defer a risky decision or to stay on a failing course out of fear of making the wrong call.

In a new paper co-written by Philippe van de Calseyde of Eindhoven University of Technology and Marcel Zeelenberg of Tilburg University, Evers explores an underexamined aspect of regret: how the confidence we have in our choices affects the intensity of our regrets.

Most previous research has assumed that any doubts we feel occur before we make a decision. Realistically, however, there’s usually doubt between a decision and the time we find out if we were right. “You may spend that time ruminating, unsure if you should have done A or B,” Evers says.

Two contradictory schools of thought suggest how post-decision doubts affect regret. On the one hand, psychological studies have shown that people feel stronger emotions when they’re surprised—say an Olympic athlete who expects gold but wins bronze. So if you already suspect you made a wrong choice, you’d feel less surprise—and perhaps less regret—when you find out you did. On the other hand, the more you doubt your decision, the more time you might spend thinking about what you should have done, and the more you might blame yourself and feel regret afterwards.

To test which hypothesis was right, Evers and her co-authors set up three experiments to measure doubt after a decision was made. They found that the second hypothesis, which posits that people blaming themselves for a bad choice causes regret, turned out to be true. In fact, in one experiment, measuring doubt related to answering a trivia question, the amount of doubt someone felt before they answered the question had no effect on regret.

Since anticipation of regret can be so detrimental to decision making…alleviating the sources of post-decision doubt might make people more prone to take action.

In a classic “trust game” experiment, the degree to which participants doubted whether they should have given money to a counterpart corresponded to the amount of regret they felt when they learned that counterpart betrayed them.

Researchers also examined regret with active versus passive choices. Seventy-eight percent of participants thought an investor who sold a stock and lost money would feel regret, compared with only 22 percent who felt an investor who held a losing stock would feel regret—even when they lost the same amount of money. “They assume that people ruminate more about something they did rather than something they didn’t do,” Evers says.

Since anticipation of regret can be so detrimental to decision making, Evers suggests that alleviating the sources of post-decision doubt might make people more prone to take action. For example, hospitals often give surgeons medical algorithms based on best practices to guide their choices, rather than relying solely on their own judgment. Similar guidance could help managers make choices in a variety of business scenarios, giving them the confidence to act.

“You want to remove any doubt so they will anticipate less regret and have all of the information they need to act,” Evers says.