The Paralysis of "Anticipated Regret"

The Paralysis of "Anticipated Regret" 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

One of my favorite blogs is PsyBlog: Understand your Mind.  Since I believe that one of the best practices of a leader or human resources pro is to study people and why we do what we do, a blog that regularly presents interesting research into how our mind works is a great resource.

One recent post at this blog titled “The Amazing Power of Regret to Shape our Future” really stuck with me and got me thinking about why we tend to stick with jobs or situations that aren’t fulfilling or helping us grow as individuals.  The focus of this post was to share some research into how regret affects our decision making.

In this study participants were given lottery tickets—not real ones, but organised by the researchers so that one person could win. Then they were asked if they would be willing to exchange them for another one which had an identical chance of winning (Bar-Hillel & Neter, 1996). To encourage them to switch tickets, they were offered a tasty truffle. Even though there was no difference between the tickets and there was a treat as an incentive, less than 50% of participants agreed.
Then the experiment was repeated with different participants, except this time, instead of lottery tickets, participants were given pens. As before they were offered a small incentive to make the switch. In this condition 90% of participants agreed to the swap.
Why the huge difference?
What is going on is that a pen is just a pen, but a lottery ticket is not just a lottery ticket. No matter what, all the pens are identical, but only one lottery ticket will actually win, although before the draw they all have the same chance of winning. What this means is that we can start using our imaginations, projecting ourselves forward into the future and thinking about possible consequences.
What if we decide to swap our lottery ticket and then it turns out to be the winning one? How will we feel then? It’s this anticipation of regret that stops people swapping their tickets.

What struck me about this experiment is how rarely the “pen” situation exists in our lives.  It’s hardly ever the case that we chose between two choices that are exactly equal.  Our choices about the things that matter always have huge potential for difference in future outcomes.  When we change jobs, the next job could be awesome, but it could also be much worse than our current one.

As I thought more about this, it really seemed to settle with me why people stay in jobs or situations that aren’t favorable for them.  I’ve always understood (although I don’t get it) that people will choose the “crappy known” situation over the unknown situation 9 out of 10 times.  We fear the unknown.  But, what I didn’t ever consider was that one of the possible drivers behind this was “anticipated regret.”  Basically, we write up mental stories about what might happen in the future and we ultimately get to the question: “What if it ends up being a mistake?”  This question paralyzes many people.

Some people, though, don’t seem to suffer from this paralysis.  So, clearly, there is an antidote for this problem and it appears to be somehow rooted in personal accountability.  If your mindset is that you create your own destiny, that you happen to the world rather than the world happening to you, then you don’t worry about what might happen after you make a decision.  You know that what happens will largely be due to the choices and actions you take.

So, this leads me to believe that the reason we have so much resistance to change within our organizations and our lives is a lack of a personal accountability mindset.  If more people understood that their results were their own doing and that they can’t control the circumstances around them, change would cease to be an issue (or at least become a much smaller one).

1 comment
  • Adi Gaskell

    That example is covered in the latest Daniel Kahneman book 'Thinking fast and slow'. Well worth a read if, like me, you love the PsyBlog.

    He mentions in the book the so called trader mentality for overcoming regret. This mentality sees people take an aggregated view of things rather than looking at incidents in isolation.

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