“All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence
.” (Tolle, 2012, p. 127)
According to Tolle (2012), spiritual teacher and author, the constant need of the mind to remember the past and to think about the future is the main factor that prevents us from experiencing inner peace and personal happiness. It is in fact a very special ability that is still assumed to be a unique ability in which only humans can excel (Cheke & Clayton, 2010; Roberts, 2002). Even though it is responsible for emotional ups and downs, such as joy or regret, and prevents us from experiencing this inner peace, it still has a positive aspect as it drives us to constantly improve and learn from our successes and mistakes (Epstude & Roese, 2008; Roese, 1997). This, in turn, increases the quality of future decisions and enables overall improved living conditions (Zeelenberg, 1999).
The decisions that everyone has to make—such as those involving career, private life, or even leisure time—could involve strong emotional experiences. These includes feelings about the respective decision, such as fear, anxiety about the consequences, and regarding the expectations about feelings that may occur after the outcome, such as relief or sadness. Of all the emotions a person can experience, regret has received the most attention in past research (Connolly & Zeelenberg, 2002). Zeelenberg and Pieters (2007) showed this by collecting academic publications on the topic of regret from 1945 to 2005, and they concluded that from the 1990s, publications on this topic increased dramatically. This clearly shows an increased interest in regret over the last decades.
One reason for the increased interest is that regret has a significant influence on decision-making. It is therefore one of the most frequently experienced emotions in human emotional life and especially occurs when individuals hold themselves personally responsible for the undesirable outcome (Connolly & Zeelenberg, 2002; Zeelenberg, 1999).
This study aims to shed further light on the findings of previous research by Shani, Danziger, and Zeelenberg (2015). As a first step, an overview of important theoretical concepts for the topic is presented. In an experimental study, we seek to extend the findings of Shani et al. (2015) by modifying some of their experiments in order to add new insights and variables to the current literature in this field of research. The overall question is whether missed opportunities in the future elicit more regret than missed opportunities in the past.
Regret can be defined as an emotion that occurs when a person is thinking about how a current situation would have been better if a different decision had been made. This negative emotion emerges from an undesirable evaluation process of a certain decision. Accordingly, the feeling leads to self-blaming for making the wrong decision and a desire to reverse the prevailing situation (Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2007). Furthermore, it is emphasized that this specific emotion is generally not categorized as one of the basic emotions such as happiness, anger, or sadness, which even a newborn can experience. It is rather a comparison-based emotion (van Dijk & Zeelenberg, 2005), a more complex pattern where the capacity to formulate another set of circumstances is necessary. These so-called counterfactual thoughts are triggered by negative events where automatically alternative scenarios of the past suggest themselves (Roese, 1997; Roese, 2000; van Dijk & Zeelenberg, 2005).
One reason regret is so important for individual decision-making is because people take the possible impact of regret into account when making a decision, and it influences the evaluation of the outcome of a decision (Martinez & Zeelenberg, 2015; Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2007). For example, it is likely that a product will be less enjoyed if a negative outcome is connected to it, even though the negative outcome does not affect the product itself (Zeelenberg, 1999). In line with this reasoning, regret was also found to affect important variables in a decision task, for example by decreasing trust levels (Martinez & Zeelenberg, 2015). Other studies suggested that relational maximization is positively related to regret and relational uncertainty (Mikkelson, Hesse, & Pauley, 2016).
Zeelenberg and Pieters (2007) also propose that regret may emerge as a result of two different reasons. One reason regards the decision process itself (e.g., whether it was justifiable and wise and carefully chosen), and the other concerns the consequential outcome of that decision. Based on this, a more tangible model of regret was developed, known as decision justification theory (DJT), which states that decision-related regret consists of two components. One is the comparative evaluation of an outcome, and the other is the feeling of self-blame due to a poor choice. The two components can occur independently; for example, a person can accept the blame for a bad choice even though the outcome was good. On the other hand, it is possible to feel regret for a bad outcome even in the absence of a reason for self-blame because the decision was made carefully, was well informed, and was therefore justified (Connolly & Zeelenberg, 2002; Crawford, McConnell, Lewis, & Sherman, 2002).
Another significant part of the research on regret differentiates regret caused by action from regret caused by inaction. Although it has been discussed in depth which of the two—action or inaction—causes a stronger feeling of regret, it may be assumed that the time course of processing the feelings of regret determines which one is regretted more. Initially, actions cause more painful feelings in the short run. However, in the long term, inactions will be regretted more (Gilovich & Medvec, 1994; Roese & Summerville, 2005). A possible explanation for this is that regrets arising from inactions are numerous because of the many positive outcomes that may have transpired. In contrast to this, regret arising from actions is exhaustive, as the negative consequences are already known and are more limited (Gilovich & Medvec, 1994).
Future misses versus past misses
Roese and Summerville (2005) conducted a meta-analysis of 11 studies in the research area of regret and concluded that life domains that cause the strongest feeling of regret are education, career, romance, parenting, the self, and leisure. These results support the Future Opportunity Principle, as they are also the areas with the greatest opportunities for change. One explanation offered for this approach is that regret typically encourages corrective action (Roese, 1997); therefore, the feeling of regret will remain as long as the opportunities for change remain open. In a situation with few opportunities to correct or change the situation, processes of cognitive dissonance reduction automatically initiate as a way to process the emotional imbalance. This in turn reduces the intensity level of regret (Roese & Summerville, 2005).
Beike, Markman, and Karadogan (2008) provide another approach to the Future Opportunity Principle: the Lost Opportunity Principle, in which they suggest that people regret mostly those opportunities where they no longer have the opportunity for change. They concluded that future opportunity enables people to imagine different ways to possibly change the outcome, which increases a feeling of hope, and this in turn reduces feelings of regret. Lost opportunities, on the other hand, make it difficult to achieve psychological closure because they can no longer change the undesired outcome.
The Dynamic Opportunity Principle offers a solution to the controversial results from these two studies (Summerville, 2011). Similar to the conflicting results in the research of action and inaction regrets, the time course will determine the focus of regret feelings. Initially, the most regret would be felt when an outcome could not be corrected; however, stronger regret feelings will eventually be dedicated to the outcomes that remain open to change. When examining the research topic itself, it is important to know whether immediate or retrospective regret is taken into consideration.
The literature in this topic provides numerous examples supporting the need for consideration of more variables when attempting to answer that question. Furthermore, many articles support the future opportunity aspect. For example, Caruso (2010) highlights that the future, with its higher controllability, gives the person the impression of being able and, most importantly, being responsible to prevent the negative outcome. Following this logical reasoning, emotional reactions to future events must be more extreme than the reactions to past events, where the responsibility to change the outcome diminishes with the inability to change the past. This would contradict the argument that future opportunities would elicit feelings of hope, as stated by Beike et al. (2008). In several experiments, Caruso (2010) provides evidence for this theory. This author shows that people feel the urge to prevent future unfairness. In his experiments, the participants were more willing to make financial sacrifices in order to prevent future unfairness than past unfairness in scenarios such as judging transgressors in a lawsuit. In Caruso’s study, (2010) the intensity levels of emotions proved to be saliently higher for future events than the emotional reactions were for past events.
Another argument raised by Wilson and Gilbert (2005) is that many decisions are based on predictions of how one will feel in the future event. Therefore, people tend to overestimate the intensity of their emotional reactions to the future consequences of the outcome because they do not consider that other events and circumstances in the future will influence their emotional condition. They also do not consider how quickly they will enter the psychological recovery process where reasons will be found for feeling less regret and negative consequences will be rationalized. Consequently, Wilson and Gilbert (2005) suggest that people tend to underestimate how soon they will initiate coping mechanisms that allow swift recovery. However, the mere fear of the subjectively overestimated emotional reaction to the future outcome indicates that people might be very motivated to make greater efforts to avoid these situations in the future.
Shani et al. (2015) provide studies with results that more strongly support the Future Opportunity Principle than the Lost Opportunity Principle, meaning that future misses are expected to have a greater impact on decision-making. As their article is the reference point for this research, we also believe that the additional variables we will observe might provide more information supporting the Future Opportunity Principle. However, these authors suggested further examination of whether the results would be the same in a separate evaluation. A separate evaluation often offers different results than a joint evaluation may, and is a way to further examine the strength of a theory or to shed further light on the factors that are important for the topic (Bazerman, Moore, Tenbrunsel, Wade-Benzoni, & Blount, 1999; González-Vallejo & Moran, 2001; Hsee & Zhang, 2004; Hsee & Zhang, 2010). As opposing results could not be completely excluded, a further examination is needed that could lead to a more complete understanding of the topic.
This experiment is a replication of a previous experiment that tested how people choose between options related to missed opportunities in the past versus missed opportunities in the future, as reported in Shani et al. (2015). The original experiment gave the participant a scenario where a choice had to be made between two importers that offer the same mug for the same price. One importer offered the mug at a discounted price in the past and the other importer will offer the mug at a discounted price in the future. As the participants had to buy the mug at that time for the regular price, it was examined from which importer a purchase of the mug would cause a stronger feeling of regret.
According to the suggestions in the further research section of their article, we modified their experiment by changing the joint evaluation into a separate evaluation. The participants had to evaluate the importers twice as they initially only received the information about one discount event, and after the presentation of a second scenario, they had to reevaluate their preferences with the knowledge of the second discount event. Shani et al. (2015) concluded that people preferred purchasing the mug that was discounted to the mug that will be discounted and that they experienced more regret purchasing the mug that would be discounted. Hence, the results clearly showed that future missed opportunities triggered more feelings of regret. Besides the separate evaluation, we additionally examined whether a future missed opportunity that is further in the future would deliver the same results and added a condition where the future discount would be offered in 6 weeks rather than in 2 weeks (Hsee & Zhang, 2010; Hsee, Zhang, Wang, & Zhang, 2013).
Accordingly, we hypothesize that
H1. In a separate evaluation, future misses will cause stronger feelings of regret than past misses.
H2. A future miss will have a stronger influence on changing people’s decisions than a past miss.
H3. Future misses with a longer time distance will cause less regret than misses in the nearer future.
For potential explanations, the participants were also asked to identify the option they would feel more responsible for with regard to missing the discount and which mug they would prefer to choose. These two questions were also retained unchanged from the original experiment in order to identify possible explanations and to increase the comparability with the original work.