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We have a strong urge to find out what might have been – even when this leads to feelings of regret

Regret seems to be a fundamental part of the human experience. As James Baldwin wrote, “Though we would like to live without regrets, and sometimes proudly insist that we have none, this is not really possible, if only because we are mortal.” Expressions of regret are easy to find throughout the history of thought, and, as indicated in the Old Testament, intrinsic to regret is a sense of emotional pain: “God regretted making humans on earth; God’s heart was saddened”.

Given the aversive experience of regret, traditional models of decision-making predict that people should to try to avoid it. But of course, the picture is more complex — we all have experienced the desire to know what might have been, even if it leads to regret. Now a study in Psychological Science, led by Lily FitzGibbon at the University of Reading, finds that the lure of finding out what might have been is surprisingly enticing.

Across six experiments, the researchers employed the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART) in which participants are required to inflate a computer animation of a balloon. The more they inflate the balloon, the greater the participant’s payoff — but each balloon has a randomly assigned “safe limit” above which it pops, and the participant is paid nothing.

In each trial, participants decided how many times to pump up the balloon and were then shown the trial outcome: whether the balloon popped (“bust” trials), or remained inflated thereby giving participants a reward (“bank” trials). After this outcome was revealed, they had the opportunity to seek “counterfactual” information — that is, feedback about alternative possible outcomes; in this case, how far they could have pumped the balloon safely in the trial and how much they could have won. Importantly, as the balloons’ safe limits varied randomly across trials, this information could not help performance later on in the task. Participants were asked to rate their emotional state, from sad to happy, after learning the outcome of the trial, and indicate whether this emotional state had changed after receiving the counterfactual information.

The researchers examined how often participants sought counterfactual information, as well as its emotional effects. They focussed their analysis on “bank” trials as these trials were expected to clearly elicit regret: counterfactual information on these trials normally signified a missed opportunity as the participant could usually have inflated the balloon more and therefore earned a higher reward.

Across all experiments, participants seemed to experience regret in “bank” trials: they felt significantly worse after receiving counterfactual information. Unsurprisingly, the greater the missed opportunity, the worse the participants felt. But even though this information elicited regret, counterfactual curiosity was high: participants requested feedback in 46% of “bank” trials across all the main experiments, and 71% in a replication study.

Strikingly, participants even spent money to receive counterfactual information: although counterfactual curiosity was higher when information was free, when they had to pay for it, they still requested feedback on 18% of bank trials. Similarly, in experiments where participants needed to exert physical effort to obtain counterfactual information, they requested feedback around half the time. This underlines how difficult it is to resist the motivational pull of learning about missed opportunities.

The counterfactual curiosity observed in “bank” trials also had detrimental effects on participants’ performance. After receiving such feedback, participants took greater risks on subsequent trials, which had a negative effect on the number of points won, particularly when this behavioural adjustment was large. This highlights a mechanism likely relevant to gambling problems: counterfactual curiosity can exacerbate damaging gambling behaviour.

While many regrets in life pertain to our own mistakes made in isolation, as social beings we continually fret over interactions with others. Of course, the BART is an abstract paradigm so the study cannot speak to regrets of a more social nature. While this is a question for future research, the strength of counterfactual curiosity exposed in the paper might suggest that many of us have a morbid curiosity to seek out regret in all forms.

The Lure of Counterfactual Curiosity: People Incur a Cost to Experience Regret

Post written by Anna Greenburgh for the BPS Research Digest.