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date: 19 September 2017

Anticipated Regret

Summary and Keywords

Regret is the prototypical decision related emotion. It is felt when the outcome of a non-chosen alternative is better than the outcomes obtained. Regret is a functional emotion that helps people to correct mistakes. It is also functional because people can anticipate regret beforehand, then choose in such a way as to avoid regret from happening. Researchers in economics proposed regret theory, an alternative to rational choice theory, which takes into account the anticipation of regret and its influence in choice. Researchers in psychology studied how anticipations of regret influence decision making in a variety of domains, including health behaviors. The findings suggest that interventions can be developed that are based on the idea that people are regret averse.

Keywords: regret, decision making, emotion, behavioral change, intervention

The late Nico Frijda formulated a number of laws of emotion (1988; see also, Frijda, 2007) that describe how emotions come in to play, how they exert their influence on behavior, and how they dissolve again. According to his law of concern, “Emotions arise in response to events that are important to the individual’s goals, motives, or concerns.” (1988, p. 351). Although this law is generally applicable to emotions, I believe that regret is an exception. Regret does not arise in response to an event that happened, but rather to an event or outcome that might have been.

Regret is the emotion felt when, after a decision, one realizes that another course of action would have led to a better outcome (see for reviews, Gilovich & Medvec, 1995; Landman, 1993; Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2007). Thus, even outcomes that are positive can lead to regret when the foregone outcome was better. For example, when one buys stocks and they increase dramatically in value, one may feel regret over not buying more stocks and earning even more. Regret is uniquely tied to choosing and decision making. If there is no choice, there is no regret. I cycle to work every day and sometimes it rains (I live in The Netherlands—it is what it is). If it rains and I get wet, I do not regret the rain (I have no control over it), but I do regret not bringing an umbrella. Leaving the house without one was clearly a wrong choice. Of course, other emotions may also be felt in relation to decision making, such as disappointment, anger, envy, satisfaction, pride. But all of these can be felt without having made a choice or decision. You can be disappointed by a birthday present you do not like, or angry when someone cuts in line before you, but regret is the only emotion that is always linked to a decision.

Regret seems to be a universal emotion. With that, I mean that regret is experienced similarly by people from different cultures. Recent research finds that regret actually feels the same, has the same experiential qualities, for people from the United States, The Netherlands, Israel, and Taiwan (Breugelmans, Zeelenberg, Gilovich, Huang, & Shani, 2014). This research also found that, across all four cultures, the emotion regret can be reliably distinguished for the related emotions of guilt and disappointment. This research also found that regret can be assessed by measuring the feelings, thoughts, and motivations that form this emotion: “I felt regret. I felt angry with myself. I thought that I was responsible for the situation. I thought that I had made a mistake. I wanted to correct my mistake.” Guilt can be assessed by: “I felt guilt. I felt like a bad person. I thought that I had violated a moral norm. I thought that I had done damage to someone else. I wanted to apologize to someone. I wanted to be forgiven.” Disappointment can be assessed by: “I felt disappointment. I felt that I deserved better. I felt powerless. I thought that the situation was unexpected. I wanted to be comforted. I wanted to console myself. I wanted to do nothing.” This structural equivalence of regret over cultures is not only interesting, but also good news for regret theories, as it makes applications of these theories possible around the globe.

Regret is a negative emotion that includes an element of self-blame, taking responsibility for the bad outcome. Maybe that is why regret is so painful. The negative affect associated with the bad outcome is amplified not only by the realization of the upward counterfactual (the better outcome that did not occur), but also by the fact that one caused the outcome oneself (“What did I do?”). In that sense, regret should be more painful than disappointment, in which there is also a negative outcome and the realization of an upward counterfactual, but one is typically not the cause of one’s own disappointing outcomes (Zeelenberg, Van Dijk, & Manstead, 1998, 2000). Of course, people sometimes express regret over things they are not responsible for (e.g., “I regret not having a younger sibling”), but these can be considered indicative of discontent, more than expressions of the emotional experience of regret. Regret is also associated with thinking about the lost opportunity (Beike, Markman, & Karadogan, 2009) and the mistakes you made, feelings that you should have known better, and the tendency to kick yourself (Zeelenberg, Van Dijk, Manstead, &Van der Pligt, 1998, 2000).

The Use of Crying Over Spilled Milk

Regret is painful. I think that it is precisely because regret is so painful that it forces one to think about the mistake made. And as a result, regret is a functional emotion (Bourgeois-Gironde, 2010; Roese, 2005; Zeelenberg, 1999). This is what I argue for here, that regret is useful—painful, but functional. It is interesting to see that people seem to be aware of this. Saffrey, Roese, and Summerville (2008) found that people value regret more than other negative emotions. Saffrey and colleagues found that regret was the most intense negative emotion, but also the one that scored highest on a number of psychological functions such as sense making, providing insight and leading to social harmony. These findings are consistent with the idea that the painfulness of regret is the key to its functionality.

Thus, I would like to think that regret is here to help us make better decisions. To help us choose wisely, regret needs to be the odd one out in the realm of emotions (and hence it does not fit Frijda’s [1988] law of concern). I mean that, in order to learn from bad decisions, regret points to the outcomes that did not occur (the counterfactual outcome). The outcomes that would have been, had you chosen differently. Comparing these outcomes result in the uncomfortable realization that one chose wrongly. This is how regret may inform future decisions. Thus learning is one function of regret.

Interestingly, if one is to learn from one’s mistakes, it is necessary to remember them. Consistent with this are the findings of the late Willem-Albert Wagenaar (1986, 1992), a Dutch psychologist who studied his own memory for a period of six years. Wagenaar found that negative events of which he was himself an instigator were much better remembered than negative events caused by others. It is likely that these events were loaded with regret. Unpublished research by Taylor (described in detail in Miller & Taylor, 1995) reveals this learning by regret in a controlled experiment. Taylor asked participants to play a trucking game in which orders were delivered weekly to a company on a nearby island. For each trip, the participants would choose to reach the island via a bridge or an equally heavily traveled tunnel. They made a series of such trips, and delayed delivery resulted in extra costs. Participants learned they were on time in half of the trials, and late in the other half (independent of their route choice). Some participants in the delay trials learned that they would have been on time had they chosen the other route (arguably leading to regret). The other participants learned that the alternative route also suffered from delays (preventing regret). Later on, the participants overestimated the regret delays (where taking the other road would have been better), and underestimated the non-regret delays. Moreover, the regret delays were rated as more frustrating, and the more frustrating they were, the more likely it was their occurrence was overestimated. Thus, two separate lines of research find that negative events that are associated with regret are better remembered, which helps, of course, when one wants to prevent them in the future. In the words of Beike et al. (2009, p. 395) “regretting lost opportunities reminds people not to lose out on other current opportunities. Hence, regret motivates people to seize the day.” Regret learning thus seems to be a real thing (see also, Coricelli & Rustichini, 2010).

An additional function of regret is that it elicits ameliorative behaviors, sometimes referred to as behavioral repair work (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995). For example, participants who make a choice between two gambles, and end up regretting their choice because the other gamble provided a better outcome, are likely to choose differently next time (Coricelli, Critchley, Joffily, O’Doherty, Sirigu, & Dolan, 2005). Similar behavioral effects can be found in social situations. Negotiators who regret a too high offer in a previous ultimatum game, offer less on a next round. The more regret they feel, the more they adjust their offer (Zeelenberg & Beattie, 1997). People feeling regret in a social relationship, about how they behave towards the other, are likely to apologize for their misbehavior (Zeelenberg, Van der Pligt, & Manstead, 1998). Consumers who experience regret over choosing a service provider that does not deliver on their promises will switch to another service provider (Zeelenberg & Pieters, 1999, 2004a). Put differently, regret leads us to undo our mistakes.

Of course I am not implying that all regrets are functional and useful. There are also instances of regret that are so intense and intrusive that they hinder learning and improvement and are more likely to cause sleepless nights and disturbing ruminations. But I believe that these maladaptive responses are the exception, or at least the minority. Most of the regrets we feel will help us. In general, I think, there is use in crying over spilled milk. But there is more. We do not have to sit and wait for regret to happen. One of the beautiful things about regret is that it can also be anticipated. Before we make a decision, we can think about how it can go wrong and imagine the regret that we might feel in response. These feelings of anticipated regret can shape our decisions before we make the mistake.

These ideas were long present in decision theory (Savage, 1951; see also Acker, 1997), and nowadays are applied in fields such as marketing (Inman & McAlister, 1994; Simonson, 1992), law (Guthrie, 1999), medicine (Becerra Pérez, Menear, Brehaut, & Légaré, 2016; Djulbegovic, Hozo, Schwartz, & McMasters, 1999), health psychology (Chapman & Coups, 2006; Connolly, & Reb, 2005), well-being (Kinner & Metha, 1989; Landman, Vandewater, Stewart, & Malley, 1995), and neuroscience (Coricelli, Dolan, & Sirigu, 2007). The role of anticipated regret was first formalized in the early 1980s by a number of economists (Bell, 1982; Loomes & Sugden, 1982; Sage & White, 1983). Let us see how that works.

Regret Theory

The basic idea in regret theory is simple: when confronted with a choice, we compare the different courses of action, and look at how the outcomes compare for all possible states of the world. We introspect as to how we feel with those outcomes in light of the outcomes that could have been. Next, we choose to minimize the occurrence of regret (and maximize the occurrence of elation). Thus, when I am about to cycle to work and contemplate whether to take my umbrella or not, I not only try to estimate the probability of rain, and the disutility of getting wet. I also estimate how I would feel about not carrying my umbrella when it turns out to be raining. If the regret I would feel in that case is intense, I will be more like likely to take my umbrella, despite low chances of rain.

Thus, regret theory assumes that people feel emotions as a result of comparing the outcome of a choice with what the outcome would have been, had one chosen differently. It also assumes that these emotions are anticipated at the time of choice, and that they are taken into consideration when choosing. Decisions are supposed to reflect this regret aversion.

This difference can be illustrated by the choice depicted in Table 1. Here the decision maker chooses A1 or A2, and then rolls a die. When the decision maker chooses A1 and rolls a 2, the outcome is $200. If the decision maker had chosen A2, he or she would have gotten $400. In this case, there is a regret of $200 (the forgone alternative is $200 better). If the decision maker had rolled a 6, the obtained outcome would be much worse, but there would be no regret (the forgone alternative would produce the same outcome). Thus, decision outcomes elicit regret (or elation) when they are compared to the outcomes of the foregone alternative.

Table 1. Outcomes of Actions A1 and A2 for Each Possible State of the world (S1–S6)

States of the World






















Note: This table represents a choice between two actions, A1 and A2. The entries are the outcomes, which depend on how the choice matches up with the state of the world that occurs. The six different states of the world represent the side of a die, after a die roll.

In a slightly more formal way, one could say that regret theory is a generalized form of utility theory that looks as follows (adapted from Zeelenberg, Van Dijk, Manstead, & Van der Pligt, 2000):

(E1) Generalized Expected Utility[A1] = Expected Utility[A1]
± Regret[not A2]

Regret theory is a generalization of expected utility theory, a normative decision theory in which it is assumed that decision-makers weigh the possible outcomes of an action and assign utilities to them. In expected utility theory, utilities are weighted by the perceived probabilities of the outcomes. Emotional reaction to decision outcomes, such as regret and elation, are not taken into account in expected utility theory.

In this equation (E1), the generalized expected utility of action A1 in Table 1 would be considered equal to its expected utility, corrected for the possible regret associated with A1. This is worked out in equation (E2). The Expected Utility[A1] term thus stands for the traditional expected utility of A1: ∑ U × P[A1], a sum of the utilities of each outcome of A1 ($100, $200, $300, $400, $0, and $0) weighed by their probability of occurrence (1/6 for each outcome).

(E2) Generalized EUA1 = ∑ U × P[A1] ± ω‎(∑ RI × RP[A1o − A2o])

The Regret term in equation (E1) represents the extent to which the possible regret is taken into account, and can be worked out as follows: ω‎(∑ RI × RP[A1o − A2o]). The RI (Regret Intensity) represents the intensity of the possible regret that stems from comparing the outcome obtained by choosing action A1 (= A1o) with the outcome that would be obtained when action A2 would have been chosen (= A2o). RP (Regret Probability) represents the probability with which this particular regret occurs. For example, for A1, RI would be 200 when S2 occurs, because in this case the chosen action A1 provides a gain of $200, whereas A2 would have provided a gain of $400, and 200−400 = –200. RP would be, in this case, 0.167 (all six states of the world in Table 1 are equally likely and thus have a probability of 1/6 = 0.167%). RI can also be positive (i.e., it represents elation over the decision). This would be the case when S1 occurs. Here the decision-maker not only gains $100, but also experiences “positive regret” (i.e., elation) because A2 would have resulted in a much worse outcome ($0). The regret term is 0 when the two actions would have resulted in the same outcome. In our example, this would be the case if S3 or S6 occurs. The multiplication and summation of all RIs and RPs represent the expected regret.

The weight assigned to the expected regret is represented by ω‎. This weight reflects the importance of the role played by expected regret in this particular decision. The value of ω‎ will depend on the personality of the decision-maker (for those who are dispositionally averse to regret, ω‎ will be higher; [e.g., Schwartz, Ward, Monterosso, Lyubomirsky, White, & Lehman, 2002]), and on situational factors (i.e., the importance of the decision, the extent to which feedback is expected, etc.; see Janis & Mann, 1977, p. 223; Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2007, p. 9). Finally, ω‎ will be higher for regret than for elation, reflecting a tendency for regret aversion to have a greater impact than elation seeking (Zeelenberg, Beattie, van der Pligt, & de Vries, 1996), which is consistent with Kahneman and Tversky’s (1979) notion that losses loom larger than gains.

Taken together, the core idea in regret theories is that decision makers not only seek to maximize their traditional expected utility, but also tend to avoid negative post-decisional emotions, such as regret, and to strive for positive emotions, such as elation. Thus, in the example shown in Table 1, the decision maker has to come to terms with the fact that either choice exposes him/her to the possibility of regret and elation. The anticipation of these emotions may result in a preference for option A1 or option A2, whereas expected utility theory would predict indifference because the expected utilities of the two choices are identical.

In later publications, the theorists who proposed regret theory also proposed a similar theory that incorporated anticipated disappointment (Bell, 1985; Loomes & Sugden, 1986). Others have attempted to integrate these theories into one more general theory (Inman, Dyer, & Jia,1997; Mellers, Schwartz, & Ritov, 1999; Zeelenberg et al., 2000). Kahneman and Tversky, when working on their prospect theory (1979) did think about regret, but “eventually abandoned this approach because it did not elegantly accommodate the pattern of results that we labeled ‘reflection’” (Kahneman, 2000, p. x). They did work on regrets for action and inaction (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982a, 1982b), but they did not integrate it in their formal model. It is telling that Kahneman (2011, pp. 286–287) more recently describes that the two obvious blind spots in prospect theory are regret and disappointment. He writes, “The emotions regret and disappointment are real, and decision makers surely anticipate these emotions when making their choices” (p. 288); and he further explains that prospect theory became more influential because it is simpler, and mostly makes the same predictions as regret theory. Still, regret theory has also done well, and does make some predictions that cannot be made on the basis of utility theory and prospect theory. Bleichrodt and Wakker (2015) review the success of regret theory in economics, and I refer the interested reader to their article. I will review here some of the behavioral research that does not focus on regret theory specifically, but that does document the predictive impact of regret in behavioral decisions.

Anticipated Regret and Behavioral Choice

Importantly, there is quite some empirical evidence nowadays about how anticipated regret is associated with the making of decisions, often better decisions. To my best knowledge, this research started with Richard and Van der Pligt (1991), asking over 800 adolescents about their sexual behaviors. They asked them about their attitudes, subjective norms, self-efficacy, habits, and anticipated affective reactions (including regret). They found that anticipated affective reactions (a combination of regret and related emotions such as worry and discontent) were related to condom use, independent of other predictors such as attitudes and habits. These findings were replicated in many other studies on health behavior (Richard, Van der Pligt, & De Vries, 1995, 1996a; Richard, De Vries, & Van der Pligt, 1998; see also, Van der Pligt & Richard, 1994; Van der Pligt, Zeelenberg, van Dijk, de Vries, & Richard, 1998).

A recent meta-analysis of 25 studies coming from 20 articles using the framework of the theory of reasoned action (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975) or the theory of planned behavior (Ajzen, 1991), revealed a strong link between anticipated and behavioral intentions, and a moderate relation between anticipated regret and behavior (Sandberg & Conner, 2008). An even more recent and more inclusive meta-analysis (81 studies from 79 articles) of the role of anticipated regret in health behavior (Brewer, DeFrank, & Gilkey, 2016) corroborated this and found similar correlations between anticipated regret, intentions, and health behaviors. Moreover, this latter meta-analysis indicates that anticipated regret for not action (not taking preventive action) is more intense, and more strongly related to health behaviors, than anticipated regret over action.

Koch (2014) chose not to do a meta-analysis on the relation between anticipated regret and health (and safety) decisions, but opted for a narrative literature review. She opted for this because of the large variability in measurement and manipulations, and in how the role of anticipated regret was analyzed. Her review includes unsafe sexual behaviors, substance use (alcohol and drugs), healthy eating, exercising, medical screening, vaccinations, blood donation and organ donation, and road safety. Koch also came to the conclusion that there is a clear link between anticipated regret and a large variety of health (and safety) behaviors. This link seems to be most clear for condom use, substance use, exercise, and donation decisions. She also concludes that, in the domain of health (and safety) behaviors, more experimental research is needed. More about experimental research later, but let us first talk about the effects of regret on organ donation.

Studies found that anticipated regret over not becoming an organ donor predicts registration intentions, over and above the theory of planned behavior predictors of intention (Newton, Newton, Ewing, Burney, & Hay, 2013). Experimental studies that compare groups that were only asked the theory of planned behavior questions (attitude, subjective norm, self-efficacy), or also questions about anticipated regret (and thereby making these emotions more salient or accessible), found that asking about anticipated regret for not registering as a donor, lead to increased registration intention and also increased registration one month later (O’Carroll, Dryden, Hamilton-Barclay, & Ferguson, 2011; O’Carroll, Foster, McGeechan, Sandford, & Ferguson, 2011). Koch (2014, p. 405) notices that the “paradoxical nature of anticipating regret for events that may occur after one’s death .º.º. influences intentions to become a posthumous organ donor, and these intentions translate into donor registration behavior.” This is particularly interesting in the light of Plous’s (1993, pp. 101–102) evaluation of regret theory as a viable alternative for prospect theory. Plous writes: “The anticipation of regret need not be viewed as inconsistent with prospect theory, however, and in decisions involving a risk of death (e.g., open heart surgery), it makes no sense to speak of regret following a negative outcome.” Plous is of course right retrospectively (What is there to regret when you are dead?), but prospectively it apparently makes sense (We do think about regrets stemming from decisions that cause us to die.). And focusing people on these regrets, that they will not experience, still impacts their choices.

Thus, there is ample support for the ideas, stemming from early decision theoretical research that anticipations of regret influence behavioral decision making. Most of this support comes from correlational studies using the theory of planned behavior, or a similar framework. But, there is also experimental evidence that anticipated regret may drive our choices. Simonson (1992) was perhaps the first to use a manipulation that increases the saliency of regret. He asked consumers to think about the potential regret they might feel when deciding between two products. This simple question made them more likely to buy products that would prevent possible regret (i.e., well-known, higher-priced brands) over potentially better products (i.e., lesser-known, less expensive brands). Richard, Van der Pligt, and De Vries (1996b), using a similar setup, found that participants who were asked to anticipate regret (and related emotions) after engaging in unprotected sex reported less risky sexual behavior in the five months following the study than a group of control respondents that were asked about their anticipated emotions about engaging in unprotected sex. Thus, making the potential regret salient, can already influence the behavior of people. The organ donation study cited above shows this as well. Also other studies find that asking questions about regret makes people more likely to exercise (Abraham & Sheeran, 2003), and more likely to engage in cervical screening (Sandberg & Conner, 2009). Such findings are also found outside the health domain. For example, asking people to think about regret made them less trustful and less trustworthy (Martinez & Zeelenberg, 2015).

Findings like these, reviewed above, are encouraging and clearly point towards the usage of anticipated regret as a tool for behavioral change and indicate opportunities for developing interventions. These interventions need to be tested, of course, and certain methodological issues need to be taken into account (cf., Koch, 2014). The tests need to be proper experiments with appropriate control groups, and the wording needs to be carefully pretested. Simply asking people to think about potential regret did work for Simonson (1992), but in cases where people may regret their actions and their inactions, it is not clear what such a question will do. Taken together, there is ample evidence that anticipations of regret relate to many heath behaviors, and there is some evidence that asking questions that make this regret more salient influences people’s decisions about healthy and unhealthy behaviors.

Anticipated Regret and Feedback about Non-Chosen Alternatives

Importantly, there is another way in which anticipated regret could be used in interventions, a way that stays closer to the regret that is thought about in regret theory. Because regret stems from comparisons between what is (outcomes of the chosen alternative) and what might have been (outcomes of non-chosen alternatives), people can try to avoid regret by avoiding feedback about these non-chosen alternatives. Let me illustrate this via the research of Larrick and Boles (1995). They had participants play a hypothetical salary negotiation about a signing bonus they could earn when deciding to work for a company called ALPHA. It was manipulated whether participants, after they reaching an agreement with ALPHA, expected to learn or not to learn the offer of a competing company BETA (the outcome that might have been). Those expecting to learn the competing offer could anticipate regret (or elation) about their decision to accept APLHA’s bonus. These participants wanted to have a higher bonus, and were less likely to reach agreement than participants who did not expect to learn the offer of BETA, thereby preventing regret. There is ample research documenting similar effects of anticipated feedback affecting behavioral decisions. Effects were found for investment decisions (Zeelenberg & Beattie, 1997), simple choices between gambles (Zeelenberg, Beattie, Van der Pligt, & De Vries, 1996), whether or not to take advantage of coupons in the supermarket (Inman & McAlister, 1994), and decisions to go to court or not (Guthrie, 1999). It has also been found that this tendency to avoid feedback can be trumped by inducing curiosity (Van Dijk & Zeelenberg, 2007), suggesting that “curiosity kills regret.” These effects of the absence or presence of feedback are not part of the original regret theories, because in these theories it is assumed that we do not need the feedback but compute the likelihood of this feedback ex ante. Humphrey (2004) solved this by providing a mathematical formalization of these effects, and incorporating them in his feedback-conditional regret theory.

These effects of feedback on non-chosen alternatives are also used as a “regret appeal,” as a way to influence people’s choices. The Dutch Postcode Lottery does that in a very efficient way. The postcode lottery is the second largest lottery in the Netherlands. Approximately 30% of the incoming money is paid out in prize money. As a comparison, the National State Lottery is the largest lottery in the Netherlands and pays out 60% as prize money. It is remarkable that the Postcode Lottery is so popular, given that it pays out only half of what the State Lottery pays out. Why would that be the case? In the Postcode Lottery your lottery ticket is your postal code or zip code. And that is special. In most lotteries, you only have a ticket when you purchase one. In the postcode lottery, you also have a ticket when you do not want to play, because every address has a postcode. Hence, if you do not play, you can still find out that your postcode turns out to be the winning postcode (there is feedback on the non-chosen alternative), turning you, effectively, into a loser. People know that and dislike that. Who wants to be loser? Who wants to find out that they would have been a millionaire if they had purchased a ticket? This is the formula that the Postcode Lottery exploits. We studied postcode lottery players and state lottery players, and we found a few remarkable things (Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2004b). The State Lottery Players liked their lottery better than the Postcode Lottery Players did. And more importantly, the postcode lottery players were motivated by regret aversion, and the State Lottery Players not. Thus, players in the Postcode Lottery were for a large part motivated to play the lottery to avoid regret from not playing.

Additional findings supporting the role of anticipated regret in lottery play can be found in Wolfson and Briggs (2002; see also, Sheeran & Orbell, 1999, Van de Ven & Zeelenberg, 2011). These researchers took the opportunity provided by the British National Lottery in 1997, when they introduced a second weekly draw (The lottery itself—the Saturday draw—started on Saturday November 19, 1994). Wolfson and Briggs (2002) found that players playing with a fixed set of numbers in the Saturday draw were more likely to participate in the Wednesday draw than players who did not use fixed numbers. Although regret was not assessed, the idea was that this behavior was caused by the anticipation of regret over seeing “one’s numbers” win on Wednesday, in case one did not play.

Thus, where the research reviewed in the section on “Anticipated Regret and Behavioral Choice” revealed that anticipated regret helps people to engage in safe sex and other preventive health behaviors, the research in this section shows that the power of anticipated regret can also be used for commercial purposes, to promote activities like lottery play. In this case, I would argue, the structure of the lottery creates a sort of “emotional blackmail,” causing people to participate not because the like the lottery so much, but because they want to avoid potential regret. Interestingly, quite some time ago, Tymstra (1989) argued for a similar “imperative” character of anticipated regret in medical testing. He argued that the moment technology allows for new medical screening procedures, anticipated regret over not using it pushes doctors (and patients) towards over usage of tests that may be not that informative and also very expensive. It is debatable whether this influence of anticipated regret is rational or functional, but it is understandable, and it shields the decision maker from regret. If he or she finds that preventing regret is more important than saving the money that is not spent on the lottery ticket, one could see it as money well spent.


Regret is an emotion that can be felt in reaction to outcomes of non-chosen alternatives being better than the outcomes obtained. Decision makers can imagine these emotions occurring before they make a decision and anticipate them. They may consequently choose, in such a way, to avoid regret from happening. Researchers in the fields of emotions research and decision research have formulated and tested theories about the workings of regret. Researchers in more applied fields, such as health behavior, have found that anticipated regret is also associated with many protective health behaviors. These findings open up many opportunities for developing and testing interventions based on anticipated regret. I hope that such interventions may help us to choose more wisely in various domains of life.

Further Reading

Becerra Pérez, M. M., Menear, M., Brehaut, J. C., & Légaré, F. (2016). Extent and predictors of decision regret about health care decisions: A systematic review. Medical Decision Making, 36, 777–790.Find this resource:

Bleichrodt, H., & Wakker, P. P. (2015). Regret theory: A bold alternative to the alternatives. Economic Journal, 125, 493–532.Find this resource:

Breugelmans, S. M., Zeelenberg, M., Gilovich, T., Huang, W.-H., & Shani, Y. (2014). Generality and cultural variation in the experience of regret. Emotion, 14, 1037–1048.Find this resource:

Brewer, N. T., DeFrank, J. T., & Gilkey, M. B. (2016). Anticipated regret and health behavior: A meta-analysis. Health Psychology, 35, 1264–1275.Find this resource:

Coricelli, G., Dolan, R. J., & Sirigu, A. (2007). Brain, emotion, and decision making: The paradigmatic example of regret. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 258–265.Find this resource:

Gilovich, T., & Medvec, V. H. (1995). The experience of regret: What, when, and why. Psychological Review, 102, 379–395.Find this resource:

Koch, E. J. (2014). How does anticipated regret influence health and safety decisions? A literature review. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36, 397–412.Find this resource:

Landman, J. (1993). Regret: The persistence of the possible. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Mellers, B. A., Schwartz, A., & Ritov, I. (1999). Emotion-based choice. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 128, 332–345.Find this resource:

Roese, N. J. (2005). If only: How to turn regret into opportunity. New York: Broadway Books.Find this resource:

Zeelenberg, M. (1999). The use of crying over spilled milk: A note on the rationality and functionality of regret. Philosophical Psychology, 13, 326–340.Find this resource:

Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2007). A theory of regret regulation 1.0. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 17, 3–18.Find this resource:


Abraham, C., & Sheeran, P. (2003). Acting on intentions: The role of anticipated regret. British Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 495–512.Find this resource:

Acker, M. A. (1997). Tempered regrets under total ignorance. Theory and Decision, 42, 207–213.Find this resource:

Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179–211.Find this resource:

Becerra Pérez, M. M., Menear, M., Brehaut, J. C., & Légaré, F. (2016). Extent and predictors of decision regret about health care decisions: A systematic review. Medical Decision Making, 36, 777–790.Find this resource:

Beike, D. R., Markman, K. D., & Karadogan, F. (2009). What we regret most are lost opportunities: A theory of regret intensity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 385–397.Find this resource:

Bell, D. E. (1982). Regret in decision making under uncertainty. Operations Research, 30, 961–981.Find this resource:

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