The Role of Regret in Decision-Making: A Developmental Study

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Behavioural Sciences

Abstract

Imagine one morning you decide to take catch a bus rather than a train to work, because the bus-stop is closer and it is raining. The bus is delayed in traffic so you miss a meeting, whereas all the trains ran on time that day. The next morning you have to decide again whether to take the train or the bus. What aspects of your previous day's experience determine whether or not you change your decision the next morning? An influential suggestion in psychology is that the emotion of regret plays an important role in situations of this sort, and indeed in many types of decision-making. Typically, the suggestion is that because regret is an unpleasant emotion, people anticipate future regret about any decisions that they may make, and thus choose the option that will minimize regret in the future. Thus, on the first day you regretted your decision to catch the bus, so on the second day you make a different decision because it is less likely to lead to regret. It is because of this potential role in decision-making that regret has been characterized as a functional, or useful, emotion that might lead to better decision-making. This claim can be seen as part of an approach to decision-making that emphasizes the role of emotions rather than merely thinking processes.
How do we know, though, that the emotion of regret itself facilitates decision-making? This project proposes a completely novel way of answering this question: by studying the decision-making of children who do or do not yet experience regret. We have already found evidence that the ability to experience regret starts to emerge around 6 years, and at this age some children are capable of experiencing regret and some are not. We have also found initial evidence of a link between the ability to experience regret about a decision on one day, and switching to making a different, more profitable, decision on a second day. Children who reported regret about the outcome of their decision were much more likely to change their choice the next day than children who did not. The proposed project will build on these promising findings and address a set of important issues.
First, does experiencing regret about a decision outcome really cause better decision-making? We will explore whether the relationship between regret and decision-making is a causal one, e.g., by manipulating the likelihood that regret is experienced and examining the effects of this on decision-making.
Second, is what matters the ability to experience regret about a particular decision, or the ability to anticipate regret in the future? Psychologists have tended to focus on the role of anticipating future regret in decision-making. We think it is likely that the ability to anticipate future regret may emerge at an older age than the ability to experience regret after an outcome, i.e., there may be an age at which children can experience but not yet anticipate regret. If this is the case, then studies with children provide a unique opportunity to examine the role of experiencing versus anticipating regret in decision-making. Thus, we will explore in detail the relationships between decision-making and both experiencing regret and anticipating regret.
Third, we will also focus on the role of experiencing/anticipating regret in two types of decision-making known to be important in development: the ability to delay gratification (choosing a larger reward in the future rather than a smaller one right now), and risky decision-making (choosing a risky option with a small possibility of a large reward rather than a less risky option that is more likely to yield a lesser reward).
We are also proposing that an associated PhD student will examine similar issues using adapted versions of our tasks with patients who have difficulties experiencing or anticipating regret due to brain damage. This will complement our studies with children and help provide a clear picture of the role of regret in decision-making.

Planned Impact

There is now broad acknowledgement that regret plays a role in everyday decision making. For example, the role of regret in explaining or predicting health-related behaviours has attracted a great deal of recent interest from researchers and practitioners seeking to optimize preventative behaviours such as vaccination or reduce harmful behaviours such as taking up smoking. Researchers in these areas are beginning to consider what types of interventions may be able to influence these types of behaviour, given the assumption that regret plays a powerful role in determining whether or not they occur. Moreover, there is very recent evidence emerging that suggests problems in experiencing or anticipating regret may occur in the mental illnesses of schizophrenia and depression and may be associated with behavioural dysfunction. Last, in the area of neuroeconomics there is a great deal of interest in how regret may influence economic choices, particularly under conditions in which choices are risky and can lead to financial losses as well as gains. The potential impact of all of these lines of more applied research is clear: understanding the role of regret may lead to more effective interventions or a better understanding of behaviour that is important in everyday life. Thus, it seems highly likely that these lines of research will have a direct impact on practice or policy. While we do not anticipate that the findings of our own research will have this sort of direct impact, we do believe that our findings will speak to the basic assumptions underpinning these strands of research regarding the relationship between regret and decision-making. Thus, our impact plan will necessarily focus on engaging researchers who conduct these more applied lines of research.

We note also that there is a great deal of interest amongst more applied researchers in the development of decision-making because of known associations between decision-making and important developmental outcomes. Much of this research has focused on adolescent decision-making (e.g., seeking to explain, and ultimately intervene on and reduce, risk-seeking behaviour in adolescents). However, some longitudinal studies have also indicated predictive relationships between decision-making in younger children and developmental outcomes. Moreover, numerous studies of developmental disorders, particularly ADHD, have been concerned with examining whether they may be associated with particular styles of decision-making (e.g., difficulty delaying gratification) that may underlie some behavioural problems. We deliberately focus on risky decision-making and delay of gratification in the proposed project because of the practical importance of these types of decision-making highlighted by these lines of applied developmental research. Again, we think that the impact of our research will be maximized through ensuring that these types of applied researchers become aware of our findings.
 
Description The research funded on this grant has opened up a new perspective on the development of decision making. The importance of regret to adult decision making has long been understood, with much theoretical emphasis placed on adults' ability to anticipate the regret that might arise out of decision outcomes. We have demonstrated the importance to children's emerging ability to make decisions of their ability to experience regret.

In particular, our research has shown that by six years of age, the ability to experience regret over a bad decision outcome is associated with the tendency to choose differently when given the opportunity to make the same decision again. Furthermore, we have shown that because children do not develop the ability to anticipate regret until one or two years after the ability to experience regret emerges, this association cannot be attributed to the ability to anticipate regret. Instead, our findings suggest that the experience of regret makes it more likely that children will spontaneously remember a previously encountered negative outcome when given the opportunity to choose again. This suggests that the experience of regret may play an important role as children use environmental feedback when learning how to make decisions.

One particular type of decision we have studied is the decision to delay gratification. While failures to delay gratification are often characterized as potential sources of regret, our findings suggest that the experience of regret over a decision not to delay gratification may help children to decide to delay gratification when they are next presented with the same choice. Given the importance of the ability to delay gratification, these results have the potential to inform interventions designed to help children learn how to defer reward.

Finally, our results contribute to what is known about the relationship between emotion and decisions to take risks during development. Adults are known to be regret responsive in that they take more risks upon realizing that they have missed an opportunity. We have shown that such regret responsiveness emerges at eight-years of age and that it increases through adolescence and into adulthood. Interestingly, six-year old children who are capable of experiencing regret when explicitly asked about their feelings, do not demonstrate regret responsiveness. These results (a) address questions about the age at which the ability to experience regret might affect children's decisions in the real world and (b) suggest that more research may be needed to address relationships in adolescence between emotion and risky decision making. Although adolescents are often thought to take more risks when making decisions in "hot" emotional states, our results suggest that the effects on risk taking of evaluative emotions such as regret are greater in adulthood than they are in adolescence.

Taken together, these results support the suggestion that regret is a functional emotion which often results in adaptive decision making.
Exploitation Route We see two obvious ways in which our findings may be taken forward. First, we found that at six years of age the experience of regret over a failure to delay gratification is associated with a tendency to choose to delay gratification when presented with the same choice a second time. This finding may have implications for the design of interventions to help children learn to delay rewards. In particular, showing children the opportunities they have missed out on through a bad decision may help them to learn to choose better in the future. Second, we have found that the experience - rather than the anticipation - of regret is associated with adaptive decision making in young children. Results of recent interventions based on anticipated regret on adults' health-related decision making have been mixed. Our results with children suggest that interventions which cause participants to bring to mind previous experiences of regret may be an effective way of improving their decision making.
Sectors Education,Healthcare

URL http://www.epsscienceofregret.com/
 
Description Our primary aim has been to maximise the impact of our work on public understanding of science. To this end we have presented the results of our studies at the British Science Festival, the ESRC Festival of Social Science and at a "Flavour of Psychology" event organised by the British Psychological Society for secondary school students considering a career in psychology. Feedback on our ESRC Festival of Social Science Event was extremely positive. Amongst attendees who completed an evaluation form (75% of whom were members of the general public), 92% agreed that our event had made them more aware of social sciences and their benefits to society, and two thirds of respondents agreed that they would use knowledge gained from the event in their work or studies. We have also given radio interviews on the topic of regret (BBC Radio 5 Live), written a popular piece for the Conversation, and have spoken about the relationship between regret and decision making in local venues such as Bright Club in Belfast and Pint of Science and Skeptics in the Pub at Birmingham. We have been interviewed about our work by a journalist from the Readers Digest and we understand that there is a pending article on regret. We have set up a website to describe the project and its outputs as well as the international workshop on regret which we organised during the project with the support of the Experimental Psychology Society. Visitors to the website may view an eight minute film describing our research and its results. One indicator of our success in impacting public understanding of science is the invitation we received to present our work at the Sexual Health Conference 2016 held in Belfast. Attendees at this regional event were doctors, nurses, youth and community workers, HIV trainers and other practitioners. Over 80% of attendees who completed an event evaluation form rated our presentation as "Good", "Very Good" or "Excellent". Although we had not envisaged this impact when we designed our research project, we now believe that the potential implications of our research for decision making around sexual health are substantial.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Healthcare
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Funded Workshops
Amount £3,500 (GBP)
Organisation Experimental Psychology Society (EPS) 
Sector Learned Society
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2016 
End 02/2016
 
Description "Children who experience regret make better decision." Joint Annual Conference of the BPS Cognitive and Developmental Sections University of Reading, Sept 2013. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This talk was delivered by Teresa McCormack at the Joint Annual Conference of the BPS Cognitive and Developmental Sections, University of Reading, 4-6 Sept 2013.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/FILES/pcls/COGDEV2013FINAL.pdf
 
Description "Counterfactual Conditional Questions with Neurologically Damaged Patients", ESPP, Tartu, July 2015. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a presentation, entitled "Counterfactual Conditional Questions with Neurologically Damaged Patients" made by Caroline Putt, Sarah Beck & Glyn Humphreys at the annual meeting of the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology in Tartu Estonia (14th-17th July, 2015).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description "Experienced regret following risky decision making in childhood." BPS Developmental Section Conference, September 2014. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This was a talk delivered Eimear O'Connor at the British Psychological Society's Developmental Section Conference, September 2014, Amsterdam.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL https://www.bps.org.uk/system/files/user-files/Developmental%20Section%20Annual%20Conference%202014/...
 
Description "Experienced versus anticipated regret in children's decision making." ESPP, Tartu, July 2015. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This was a poster presented by Eimear O'Connor, Aidan Feeney, Teresa McCormack and Sarah Beck at the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology conference, July 2015 in Tartu, Estonia.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://espp2015.ut.ee/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/ESPP-book-web-TL-12-16.07.2015.pdf
 
Description "Experienced versus anticipated regret in children's decision making." SRCD, 2015 Biennial Meeting, Philadelphia, March 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Poster presented by McCormack and Feeney at the 2015 biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Philadelphia, March 2015.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.srcd.org/sites/default/files/documents/2015_srcd_biennial_meeting_program_book_rev.pdf
 
Description "Regret and Adaptive Decision Making in Neurologically Damaged Patients ". Workshop on Counterfactual Reasoning, Toronto, November 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a presentation, entitled "Regret and Adaptive Decision Making in Neurologically Damaged Patients " made by Caroline Putt and Sarah Beck to the Interdisciplinary Workshop on Counterfactual Reasoning, 4-5th November 2016, held at the University of Toronto.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description "Regret and Decision Making." British Psychological Society, Flavour of Psychology, Belfast, March 2014 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact This talk was delivered by Aidan Feeney to an audience of 250 A-level, and Irish Leaving Certificate Students as part of the Annual BPS Flavour of Psychology event for prospective students of Psychology. The session, which covered the variety of social science methods used to study regret, was well received and led to interesting discussion prompted by questions from the audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/psy/Events/55years/FlavourOfPsychology/
 
Description "Regret and responsiveness to missed opportunities in young children." SPUDM, Budapest, August, 2015. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This talk, by Feeney, O'Connor, McCOrmack & Beck, was delivered at the Subjective Probability Uncertainty and Decision Making Conference, Budapest, August 2015. The talk was well received by the audience of decision making researchers and led to further communication with a number of researchers well known for their work on emotion and decision making.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description "Regret". Bright Club, Belfast, September 2015. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 30 members of the public attended an event organised by Bright Club, Belfast as part of the Belfast Festival of Comedy. Aidan Feeney spoke for 10 minutes about the psychology of regret and our ESRC funded work on regret and children's decision making.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description "The Development of Regret and Relief about the Outcomes of Risky Decisions". Sexual Health Conference, Belfast, November 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was an invited keynote address, entitled "The Development of Regret and Relief about the Outcomes of Risky Decisions~", presented at the Sexual Health Conference on 23 November 2016. The Sexual Health Conference is an annual event organised by the Sexual Health Training Team at the Belfast Social Care and Health Trust. The audience at the event is comprised of sexual health practitioners working in the NHS or in the third sector. The 45 minute talk generated considerable interest and discussion and was positively rated by participants in their feedback on the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description "The Role of Regret in Young Children's Decision Making: From Risk to Delaying Reward." Judgement and Decision Making Conference, Chicago, November 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Poster presented by Aidan Feeney at the Annual Conference of the Society for Judgement and Decision Making, Chicago, November 2015.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.sjdm.org/programs/2015-program.pdf
 
Description "The Science of Regret." British Festival of Science, University of Birmingham, September 2014 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The aim of this event was to illustrate a variety of social science methods via consideration of the range of work that has been carried out on regret. We presented a series of short talks interspersed with simple practical demonstrations. The event was over-subscribed, and the audience were very engaged by the material resulting in an extremely interesting discussion at the end.

After the talk, the PI was contacted by a science journalist from a national newspaper who is working on an article on the science of regret.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/british-science-festival/science-regret
 
Description "The development of counterfactual thinking: how children use imagination to think about reality." Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Goldsmiths 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This was a research seminar delivered in January 2015 by Dr Sarah Beck to an audience of faculty and postgraduate students in the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Goldsmiths.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description "When is it rational to be emotional?" Bringing Emotion out of the Shadows, Ulster Museum, March 2014 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This presentation by Aidan Feeney was part of a one day inter-disciplinary symposium "Bringing Emotion out of the Shadows" designed to showcase research on emotion across the social sciences and humanities. Attendees included local politicians, representatives from third sector organisations associated with conflict resolution in Northern Ireland, local business people, members of the general public, and a number of international emotion researchers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL https://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/media/Media,439473,en.pdf
 
Description "Why regret is not always a bad thing." ESRC Festival of Social Science, Belfast, September 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Between 10 and 20 members of the public attended a set of short talks, and participated in a number of informal activities, designed to demonstrate the wide variety of ways in which regret has been studied by social scientists and neuroscientists. The event was very positively evaluated by attendees who asked a number of questions at the end leading to interesting discussion.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description EPS Science of Regret Workshop. University of Birmingham, February, 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Using funding obtained from the Experimental Psychology Society, the grant holders (Feeney, McCormack & Beck) organised a two-day workshop on the Science of Regret. Participants included world-leading experts on regret in social, developmental, cognitive and health psychology as well as behavioral and neuroeconomists. There were eight excellent talks at the event including one of our own summarising all of the work we have carried out on our ESRC project. The 30 audience members at the event included PhD students, and researchers from Ireland, France, UK and the Netherlands.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.epsscienceofregret.com/
 
Description Interview for BBC website 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact I was interviewed for a piece about our research on the National Health page of the BBC website. This story was tweeted to 2.2 million followers and attracted 171,939 total views. It featured on the homepage of the BBC's international website.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-40741254
 
Description Live interview, Highland Radio 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Live interview on regret and children's decision making, Ten to One Show, Highland Radio, Donegal, Republic of Ireland, 31/7/2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Local radio interviews about regret and children's decision making 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact I was interviewed about our project on Q Radio and U105, both Northern Ireland (27/7/17). The interviews were broadcast on news bulletins on 28/07/2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Press release 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact The ESRC did a press release about our project which was featured in a piece on the ITV website and on Belfast Live. There were also pieces in the Irish Times, the Irish Examiner and the Belfast Telegraph.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.itv.com/news/utv/2017-07-28/learning-regret-helps-children-develop-decision-skills/
 
Description Radio interview on regret and Children's decision making 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact I was interviewed about regret and children's decision making on Today FM, Republic of Ireland (27/07/2017). This interview was replayed (28/7/2017) on Citybeat, Stephen and Cate; Sunshine FM, Nick Jones; FM104 The Strawberry Alarm CLock; 98 FM Cooper and Luke.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Radio interview on regret. BBC 5 Live, 8 January 2016. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Aidan Feeney was interviewed live for 3-4 minutes about the psychology of regret by presenters on BBC 5 Live.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Regret and children's decision making: Live Interview, BBC Radio Ulster 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Live interview about regret and children's decision making, Evening Extra BBC Radio Ulster, 28/7/2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Regret and children's decision making: Live interview on BBC Radio Foyle 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Live interview on regret and children's decision making, BBC Radio Foyle, Mark Patterson Show, 28/7/17
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk: Does the experience of regret help children learn to delay gratification? SRCD, Austin 6-8 April 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Invited talk "Does the experience of regret help children learn to delay gratification?" delivered as part of a symposium On the Interplay between Counterfactual Thinking and Decision Making in Childhood at Biennial Conference of the Society for Research on Child Development, Austin, 6-8 April 2017.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Talk: Regret and Time. Workshop on Emotions, Imagination, and Time, Centre for the Philosophy of Time, University of Milan, 21-23rd September 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Talk on "Regret and Time" at the workshop on Emotions, Imagination, and Time, organized by the Centre for the Philosophy of Time, University of Milan, 21-23rd September 2017.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Talk: The development of regret and its effect on children's decision making. International Convention of Psychological Science, Vienna 23-25 March 2017. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Talk on The development of regret and its effect on children's decision making. International Convention of Psychological Science, Vienna 23-25 March 2017. This talk was part of a symposium organised by McCormack and Feeney on Perspectives on Regret and Decision Making with invited contributions from Prof Giorgio Coricelli (University of Southern California), Prof Ronan O'Carroll (University of Stirling) and Dr Luke Clark (University of British Columbia).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017