From the guest blogger Anna Greenburgh
Regret seems to be a fundamental part of the human experience. James Baldwin wrote: “Although we want to live without regrets and sometimes proudly insist that we have none, it is not really possible, if only because we are mortal.” Expression of regret is easy to find throughout the history of thought , and as stated in the Old Testament, the feeling of emotional pain is a feeling of emotional pain: “God regretted making people on earth; God’s heart was sad ”.
Given the aversive experience of regret, traditional decision-making models predict that people should try to avoid it. But of course the picture is more complex – we have all experienced the desire to know What could have been even if it leads to regret. Now a study in Psychological scienceLed by Lily FitzGibbon of the University of Reading, the temptation to find out what could have been surprisingly tempting.
In six experiments, the researchers used the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART), in which participants have to inflate a computer animation of a balloon. The more they inflate the balloon, the higher the contestant’s payout – but each balloon has a randomly assigned “safe limit” above which it will burst, and the contestant receives nothing.
In each trial, participants decided how often the balloon should be inflated and then received the test result: whether the balloon burst (“bust” attempts) or remained inflated, giving participants a reward (“bank” attempts). After this result was known, they had the opportunity to search for “counterfactual” information, ie for feedback on alternative possible outcomes. In this case, how far they could safely have pumped the balloon while trying and how much they could have gained. Because the safety limits of the balloons varied randomly in each experiment, this information did not improve performance later in the task. Participants were asked to rate their emotional state from sad to happy after learning the outcome of the study and to indicate whether that emotional state had changed after receiving the counterfactual information.
The researchers looked at how often participants looked for counterfactual information and what emotional impact it had. They focused their analysis on “bank” studies as these studies were expected to evoke unequivocal regret: counterfactual information on these studies usually meant a missed opportunity as the participant could usually inflate the balloon more and therefore receive a higher reward.
In all experiments, the participants in “bank” studies seemed to feel regret: They felt significantly worse after receiving counterfactual information. Unsurprisingly, the bigger the missed opportunity, the worse the participants felt. Although this information provoked regret, the counterfactual curiosity was high: Participants asked for feedback in 46% of the “bank” studies on all main experiments and 71% in a replication study.
Strikingly, the participants even spent money to receive counterfactual information: Although the counterfactual curiosity was higher for free information, they still asked for feedback on 18% of the bank attempts if they had to pay for it. In experiments where participants had to use physical exertion to obtain counterfactual information, they asked for feedback about half the time. This underscores how difficult it is to resist the motivation to learn about missed opportunities.
The counterfactual curiosity observed in “bank” studies also had an adverse effect on participant performance. After receiving such feedback, participants were at greater risk on subsequent attempts, which had a negative impact on the number of points earned, especially if this behavioral adaptation was large. This underscores a mechanism that is likely relevant to gambling problems: counterfactual curiosity can exacerbate harmful gambling behavior.
While many regrets in life concern our own mistakes made in isolation, as social beings we are constantly angry about interactions with others. Of course, the BART is an abstract paradigm so the study cannot speak with regret of a social nature. While this is a question for future research, the strength of the counterfactual curiosity revealed in the paper could suggest that many of us have a morbid curiosity to seek regret in all forms.
– The lure of counterfactual curiosity: People incur a cost to experience regret
Post written by Anna Greenburgh for the BPS Biomedarticles. is a PhD student at University College London in Cognitive Science and Clinical Psychology. Her research examines social perception across the paranoia spectrum and in psychosis. She has written for both academic journals and magazines such as psyche.
At Biomedarticles, we pride ourselves on showcasing the expertise and writing talent of our community. Click here to learn more about our guest posts.