Researchers have identified a “hidden source of regret”: our tendency to overrate the choices we (almost) make

By Matthew Warren

We often feel regret when we learn that an opportunity we rejected has turned out really well. Think about that investment you didn’t make that has now shot up in value, for example, or the person you never asked out who is now living a happily married life.

But what happens when we never find out the outcome of that potential, rejected opportunity? If we don’t know what could have been, then it might seem like we shouldn’t feel much regret. But according to a new series of studies in Psychological Science by Daniel Feiler from Darmouth College and Johannes Müller-Trede from the University of Navarra, we sometimes feel more regret in these situations.

Here’s the logic behind the team’s investigation. Say you have to make a decision where you are faced with many different options — ordering from a menu at a fancy restaurant, for instance. You whittle it down to two possibilities that look particularly appetising, the salmon and the steak, before ultimately deciding to go for the steak. This is going to be one of the best meals of your life, you think, mouth watering as you see the waiter bring out the dish. But when you bite into the steak, it is merely OK, and nothing to write home about. You have overestimated how good it will be, and now you feel let down. If only you had gone for the salmon, you think…

But there’s a problem with this line of thinking: the salmon might have also been a disappointment. In fact, precisely because you were drawn to it so much, it’s quite possible that you overestimated its attractiveness, just as you did for the steak. However, because you didn’t order the salmon, you’ll continue to think it would have been amazing — and to feel regret.

The team’s work suggests that this idealisation of a rejected opportunity — and subsequent regret — is quite common. In the first study, 800 participants saw nine blurred faces (either men or women, depending on each participant’s preference), and had to choose their top two favourites. They then had to select which of these two would be the most attractive when unblurred.

All participants then saw their chosen face, now visible, alongside the rejected face. For half of the participants, this rejected face remained blurred, but for the other half it was made visible too. They all then rated how much regret they felt about rejecting this face, and rated the attractiveness of both the chosen and rejected face (or predicted attractiveness if the rejected face was still blurred).

The team found that when the rejected face remained blurred, participants were more likely to report feeling regret about their choice, and also expected the face to be more attractive compared to the actual attractiveness ratings given by participants for whom it was visible. In other words, participants who never found out what the rejected face looked like overestimated its attractiveness, and this seemed to lead to feelings of regret about not choosing it. However, participants who saw this face had a more realistic view of its attractiveness, and that tempered feelings of regret.

The researchers reported similar results using a different set-up. Participants pretended they were recruiting for a consulting firm, and were given 10 candidates, each of whom had been assigned scores based on an interview and test. They were told that these scores provided some indication of the candidate’s ability, but weren’t perfect, and could be a bit higher or lower than the their true ability.

Participants had to shortlist two candidates, and then decide which to hire. After making their choice, they were given a score representing their chosen candidate’s true ability. Half of the participants were also shown the rejected candidate’s true ability, while the other half were just shown this candidate’s interview and test scores again. Finally, all participants were asked how much regret they felt about passing on the rejected candidate.

The results showed that participants who never found out the rejected candidate’s true ability were more likely to report regret, and also reported a higher degree of regret, than those who did find out. A subsequent study suggested that this was again because they were overestimating the “attractiveness” of the rejected candidate — in this case, they thought that the candidate’s true ability was higher than it actually was.

This makes sense: the most attractive candidates would be those with high scores, but these would also tend to be people whose scores were overestimates of their true ability. Participants would be disappointed in finding out that their chosen candidate wasn’t as skilled as they thought, but might not realise that the same would likely be true of their rejected candidate.

Overall, then, it seems that regret might be quite a common experience when we don’t know exactly what would have happened if we had chosen a different path — particularly if we feel let down by the choice we did make. So in these situations is useful to bear in mind that we’ve probably overestimated how good that alternative path would have been. In fact, the authors suggest that “calibrating” our beliefs in this way could prevent regret from contributing to mood disorders — although further work is clearly needed.

The One That Got Away: Overestimation of Forgone Alternatives as a Hidden Source of Regret

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest