Drowning in Regret

In my first post on this blog, I discussed how we can become crippled by possibility. Increasing the range of real or imagined options seemingly results in higher levels of inaction amongst customers. But, in an effort to provide a concise summary of the problem, I missed out – what I believe – to be the underlying ‘thing’ which explains choice paralysis.

That underlying ‘thing’ is a feeling called regret.

Ice cream choices

Is this heaven or hell?

Thus, in this post I am endeavouring to provide a deeper and more elaborate perspective as to why choice paralysis occurs. So even if you read my previous post, this post should still be a valuable addition which is worth throwing into your brain.


What is a Regret?

Regret is a “painful” negative emotional state where we feel “sorry for misfortunes, limitations, losses, transgressions, shortcomings, or mistakes” (Landman, 1993, p. 36). Oddly, “judgement is more central” to the feeling or regret than other emotions which we feel (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995, p. 379). Furthermore, there are two types of regret which we can experience. These are:

  • Anticipated Regret: This occurs during the ‘alternative evaluation’ stage of the decision making process (Kardes, Cline, & Cronley, 2011, p. 71). The term refers to beliefs about possible regret that may be felt depending on whether an action is or is not taken (Abraham & Sheeran, 2003).
  • Postdecision Regret: Also known as ‘buyer’s remorse’. This is regret which occurs during the post-purchase evaluation stage of the consumer decision making process (Kardes, Cline, & Cronley, 2011, p. 71).

Incentivised Inaction

According to previous findings (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982; Landman, 1987), we feel greater regret – in the short term – when we experience negative outcomes that are the result of an action, rather than an inaction. In other words, when deciding between options becomes difficult, we decide not to act at all because of the salience of the regret which is felt.

Do nothing.

When faced with the possibility of too much regret, some of us may defer the decision to the future.

Experiments by Shin and Ariely (2004) have similarly shown that when we can’t make a decision, we tend towards maintaining the options which are available to us. This is described by the authors as simply being the result of an “aversion to loss” (p. 575). However, these authors overlooked that our aversion towards the feeling of regret may be the true driving force behind our tendency towards loss aversion (Zeelenberg, Beattie, Van der Pligt, & de Vries, 1996).

To summarise this section: our feelings of anticipated and postdecision regret are critical to the decision making process undertaken by customers and consumers.

Case: Buying a TV

So let’s imagine that you’re in the market for a new TV. You’ve looked over all the reviews, compared the prices and tried to find out whose doing the best deals for what. And let’s suppose, by some random alligning of jupiter’s moons, that you’ve cut down your choice to five TVs.

But as you review the options, the opportunity costs (i.e., the value of alternatives which must be given in order to pursue a particular path) of purchasing one of these leads you to feel regret for those features which you are forgoing. You might just decide that you can’t deal with the anticipated guilt and decide not to act. Who needs a new TV anyway?

Or you might make a decision and choose a sparkling new TV (which you consider to the best option). But in the end, imagining all the opportunity costs in advance of making the decision just makes the option that you choose ‘feel’ less attractive. So even when you make the best decision, anticipated regret picks up a hammer and smashes your enthusiasm for the option you’ve chosen (Schwartz, 2005, pp. 154-156).

Closing Thoughts

So what can we do about this? One of the numerous suggestions outlined by Schwartz (2005) is to “satisfice more and maximize less” (p. 225). Put simply, satisficers look for “something that is good enough” (Schwartz, et al., 2002, p. 1179). But a maximizer cannot do this. They are driven to make the best possible choice. Thus, more choice leads to more opportunity costs. And more opportunity costs for the maximizer means that they’ll feel more anticipated regret.

However, Schwartz (2005) does acknowledge that you can’t act like a satisficer in all circumstances. But, the decision to act in a maximizing way has opportunity costs in of itself. Therefore, utilizing this mindset towards a decision should be an important decision in itself. For example, I consider the adoption of a maximizing stance to be beneficial at University and worth the regret that I must feel. It’s important that I choose the best option in that case. But when it comes down to the type of bread that I want to buy at the supermarket…good enough will do.

Unfortunately, I have to stop the blog post there. Sorry about that.

Feel free to ask any questions or add a contribution in the comment section.

Thanks for reading!



Abraham, C., & Sheeran, P. (2003). Acting on intentions: The role of anticipated regret. British Journal of Social Psychology, 42(4), 495-511. doi:10.1348/014466603322595248

Gilovich, T., & Medvec, V. H. (1995). The experience of regret: What, when, and why. Psychological Review, 102(2), 379-395. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.102.2.379

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1982). The psychology of preferences. Scientific American, 246(1), 160-173. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0182-160

Kardes, F. R., Cline, T. W., & Cronley, M. L. (2011). Consumer behavior: Science and practice. Mason, OH/US: South-Western Cengage Learning.

Landman, J. (1987). Regret and elation following action and inaction: Affective Responses to Positive Versus Negative Outcomes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 13(4), 524-536. doi:10.1177/0146167287134009

Landman, J. (1993). Regret: Persistence of the possible. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schwartz, B. (2005). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York, US: HarperCollins.

Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1178-1197. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.83.5.1178

Shin, J., & Ariely, D. (2004). Keeping doors open: The effect of unavailability on incentives to keep options viable. Management Science, 50(5), 575-586. doi:10.1287/mnsc.1030.0148

Zeelenberg, M., Beattie, J., Van der Pligt, J., & de Vries, N. K. (1996). Consequences of regret aversion: Effects of expected feedback on risky decision making. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 65(2), 148-158. doi:10.1006/obhd.1996.0013

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1 Comment

Filed under Decision Making

One response to “Drowning in Regret

  1. Hi,
    Really interesting topic!!!
    It couldn’t be so near my personal experience. I’m very surprised about how much my life as a consumer is so well explained on all of these posts… I’m almost worried about that…
    Anyway… I find a cool article (http://www.jstor.org/stable/3152229) about the link between regret and the use of coupon’s expiration dates.
    The authors state that one of the reason of the sharp increase of the coupon with the expiry date is because it has a great impact on people’s consume. In particular it can create a regret feeling in the consumer, which will nudge them to buy faster the product. In fact, if the consumers could predict their future regret, caused by their forgiveness in using the coupon in time, they will be more inclined to use the coupons. It’s strange how the authors call the consumers’ attempts to use the coupon before the expiration date. They name it “coupon redemption” as the consumers fell an out-and-out sense of duty to get the coupon benefits.
    It’s a little bit scary, don’t you think?? Even if we consider that this kind think could be easily reproduced in every occasion consumers has to face a product’s limited availability.

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