From the trivial – ‘I wouldn’t have this thumping headache if only I hadn’t drunk that last double vodka’, to the (slightly) more profound – ‘If only I’d studied finance rather than psychology I might be going to Las Vegas, not Blackpool’, it can be frustrating pondering what might have been.
Now Eric van Dijk and Marcel Zeelenberg at Leiden University in the Netherlands have investigated what influences how much regret we feel. First they showed that it makes all the difference knowing for sure what the alternative outcome would have been. One hundred and eight students were asked to imagine that they’d picked one of two boxes, each of which had a prize hidden in it, and won a squeezy stress ball. Some students were asked to imagine that they had definitely missed out on a specific, named prize in the other box. They were told whether it was a CD of their choosing, a walkman, or ‘a dinner for two’. These students anticipated experiencing significantly more regret than other students who were asked to imagine they’d missed out on either a CD, a walkman or dinner, but it wasn’t known which. “Uncertainty about what could have been may reduce feelings of regret”, the authors said.
A second study showed the comparability of what might have been, with what did happen, also makes a difference. Students asked to imagine winning a $15 book token via a scratch card, and then witnessing the next customer win a $50 book token on their card, anticipated feeling more regret than students asked to imagine winning a $15 book token but missing out on a $50 drinks voucher. The same principle applied with the prize contents reversed (e.g. a $15 drinks voucher compared with a $50 book prize). “More regret is anticipated when the obtained outcome and the missed outcome come from the same category”, the authors explained.
The authors said that without taking certainty and comparability into account, we’d be permanently rueing what might have been. “By excluding the unknown and the incomparable, we may be better able to experience life without the constant nagging feeling of regret”, they said.
van Dijk, E. & Zeelenberg, M. (2005). On the psychology of ‘if only’ : regret and the comparison between factual and counterfactual outcomes. Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 97, 152-160.