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Monday, July 18, 2022

The One That Got Away: Overestimation of Forgone Alternatives as a Hidden Source of Regret

Feiler, D., & Müller-Trede, J. (2022).
Psychological Science, 33(2), 314–324.


Past research has established that observing the outcomes of forgone alternatives is an important driver of regret. In this research, we predicted and empirically corroborated a seemingly opposite result: Participants in our studies were more likely to experience regret when they did not observe a forgone outcome than when it was revealed. Our prediction drew on two theoretical observations. First, feelings of regret frequently stem from comparing a chosen option with one’s belief about what the forgone alternative would have been. Second, when there are many alternatives to choose from under uncertainty, the perceived attractiveness of the almost-chosen alternative tends to exceed its reality. In four preregistered studies (Ns = 800, 599, 150, and 197 adults), we found that participants predictably overestimated the forgone path, and this overestimation caused undue regret. We discuss the psychological implications of this hidden source of regret and reconcile the ostensible contradiction with past research.

Statement of Relevance

Reflecting on our past decisions can often make us feel regret. Previous research suggests that feelings of regret stem from comparing the outcome of our chosen path with that of the unchosen path.  We present a seemingly contradictory finding: Participants in our studies were more likely to experience regret when they did not observe the forgone outcome than when they saw it. This effect arises because when there are many paths to choose from, and uncertainty exists about how good each would be, people tend to overestimate the almost-chosen path. An idealized view of the path not taken then becomes an unfair standard of comparison for the chosen path, which inflates feelings of regret. Excessive regret has been found to be associated with depression and anxiety, and our work suggests that there may be a hidden source of undue regret—overestimation of forgone paths—that may contribute to these problems.

The ending...

Finally, is overestimating the paths we do not take causing us too much regret? Although regret can have
benefits for experiential learning, it is an inherently negative emotion and has been found to be associated with depression and excessive anxiety (Kocovski et al., 2005; Markman & Miller, 2006; Roese et al., 2009). Because the regret in our studies was driven by biased beliefs, it may be excessive—after all, better-calibrated beliefs about forgone alternatives would cause less regret. Whether calibrating beliefs about forgone alternatives could also help in alleviating regret’s harmful psychological consequences is an important question for future research.

Important implications for psychotherapy....