Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Disappointment

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What is disappointment, what causes it, and how can it be managed?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Older woman with a disappointed look on her face in a busy market place.
Figure 1. Person expressing disappointment through facial features.

Have you ever received a lower grade than you expected? Have you ever been let down by someone? If so, you may have experienced disappointment. Disappointment is one of the most common and frequently experienced negative emotions (Van Dijk & Zeelenberg, 2002). Emotions are complex, coordinated, multidimensional responses that help us in our everyday lives (Reeve, 2018). Emotions help us to cope, communicate, and adapt to the world around us (Izard, 2010; Reeve, 2018). While there is no official definition of the word 'emotion', it is agreed that emotions involve feelings, bodily arousal, purpose, and expression (see figure 1); and are a part of what motivates us (Reeve, 2018). This chapter describes disappointment, explores the causes of disappointment, and discusses what can be done to manage disappointment.

It is important to note that human emotions are poorly understood and emotion research is new; disappointment research is in its infancy and there is still a lot to learn (Ramachandran & Jalal, 2017).

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Key questions:
  • What is disappointment?
  • What causes disappointment?
  • How can disappointment be managed?

What is disappointment?[edit | edit source]

Disappointment is an emotion that occurs when you compare the actual outcome to the perceived better outcome that did not occur, or when your expectations are not met (Zeelenberg et al., 1998a, 1998b). In the context of disappointment, outcomes could be anything, for example, a friend forgetting to do the task you asked them to do, receiving a lower mark on an assignment than you expected, or listening to the new album of your favourite artist and discovering that you don't like any of the songs. Disappointment is all about expectations, and reflecting on what could have happened (Zeleenberg et al., 1998a; Reeve, 2018).

Disappointment is a decision-making emotion and has historically been researched using forced choice tasks, or asking participants to recall moments when they have experienced disappointment (Zeleenberg et al., 1998a). Researchers generally use choice tasks when researching how disappointment works and various aspects of disappointment, and recall tasks are generally used to define or gain insight on everyday disappointment (Matarazzo et al., 2021). One downside to researching disappointment in this way is that disappointment has been shown to increase in forced choice tasks (Matarazzo et al., 2021). However, Matarazzo et al. (2021) found that the thinking, action tendencies, and feelings of disappointment in forced choice tasks are possibly due to the nature of forced choice tasks.

Like envy or empathy, disappointment is a cognitively complex emotion (Reeve, 2018; Ramachandran & Jalal, 2017). Disappointment typically involves feeling powerless, a tendency to remove oneself from the situation, and a desire to do nothing (van Dijk et al., 1999; Reeve, 2018). In some cases, disappointment can look like depression, sadness, embarrassment, or introversion; as the disappointed individual may withdraw from social situations, feel as if they have experienced a loss, try to avoid similar situations, or not want to participate in general. Disappointment can be paralysing, especially experiencing a string of disappointing events back-to-back, however, people are less likely to hold on to their disappointment and are more likely to move on from the experience in a relatively short amount of time (Zeleenberg et al., 1998a). See table 1 for examples of emotion similar to disappointment.

Table 1

Emotions Similar to Disappointment

Emotion Definition
Regret A cognitively complex negative emotion that occurs when you know that the outcome that occurred could have been better if you made a different choice (Zeelenberg et al., 1998a; Reeve, 2018). "Regret stems from bad decisions" (Zeelenberg et al., 1998a, p.222).
Anger A simple negative emotion that occurs when you cannot achieve your goals and you blame someone or something else for it (Lelieveld et al., 2011; Reeve, 2018). Anger can be the result of disappointment (van Dijk et al., 1999).
Disillusionment A complex negative emotion that occurs when you realise that what you believe or know is false (Maher et al., 2020). Disappointment is a key feature of disillusionment.

Spotlight: The history of disappointment

The history of disappointment research begins with regret. Many researchers, including David Bell, Graham Loomes, and Robert Sugden, were exploring decision making under uncertainty and the emotions that accompany these decisions. After simultaneously publishing their regret theories in 1982, Bell (1985), and Loomes and Sugden (1986) developed their theories of disappointment. A key assumption these theories make is that decision makers anticipate emotions and take them into account when making a decision (Zeleenberg et al., 1998b, 2000).

According to Bell (1985), disappointment "is a psychological reaction to an outcome that does not match up with expectations" (p.1). Bell (1985) believed that perceived disappointment changes the desirability of the outcome and influences how people will act. van Dijk and van der Pligt (1997) conducted five experiments that confirmed Bell's theory; where the experience of disappointment is primarily determined by the probability of the outcome.

According to Loomes and Sugden (1986), "when considering any uncertain prospect, an individual forms some prior expectation... if that consequence falls short of the prior expectation... the individual... experiences some degree of disappointment" (p.271). Loomes and Sugden (1986) have acknowledged that disappointment is more complex and powerful than basic probability, and they have acknowledged that they share the same basic intuition about disappointment as Bell (1985).

Now that you know a bit about disappointment, let's look at the two types of disappointment.

Types of disappointment[edit | edit source]

There are two widely recognised types of disappointment. These are outcome-related disappointment [ORD] and person-related disappointment [PRD] (van Dijk & Zeelenberg, 2002).

ORD occurs when the expected pleasurable outcome does not occur (van Dijk & Zeelenberg, 2002). This type of disappointment is often researched using forced choice tasks. People who experience ORD may feel hopeless or empty, want a second chance, or try harder to change the outcome next time (van Dijk & Zeelenberg, 2002).

PRD occurs when you attribute the undesirable outcome to another person (van Dijk & Zeelenberg, 2002). This type of disappointment is not often focused upon, however, it is probably the most commonly experienced type. People who experience PRD may feel abandoned or distanced from the other person, disapprove of them, and ignore or avoid them (van Dijk & Zeelenberg, 2002).

One important consideration is that van Dijk & Zeelenberg (2002) assume that PRD is cause by another person, not yourself. As you many know, it can be easy to disappoint yourself. While there has not been research into dimensions of PRD, it would be useful to refine the idea of PRD or research self-disappointment and determine if it should be included in PRD or if it should be considered self-related disappointment.

Test yourself[edit | edit source]

1 Mary's boss received a complaint from a customer about Mary. Mary was made aware of the complaint and then fired. Mary is likely to experience:

Person-related disappointment
Outcome-related disappointment

2 Alex is trying to get a snack from a vending machine. Alex put their money into the vending machine and typed in the code for lemonade. The vending machine did not give Alex lemonade, and took their money. Alex is likely to experience:

Person-related disappointment
Outcome-related disappointment

What causes disappointment?[edit | edit source]

As established, disappointment is a cognitively complex emotion that occurs when expectations are not met (Zeleenberg et al., 1998a; Chua et al., 2009). But what causes disappointment? Disappointment is likely to occur due to thoughts and mental processes that originate in the cerebral cortex (Reeve, 2018). Multiple brain regions have been shown to be active during disappointment or to contribute to the process of disappointment, namely the anterior insula, and various regions of the prefrontal cortex (Chua et al., 2009: Mohr et al., 2010: Kalat, 2019). Due to the complexity of disappointment, some of the brain regions work together to produce disappointment. It is also important to note that some of the brain regions that are active when experiencing disappointment are also active when experiencing regret (Chua et al., 2009); the overlapping regions will not be discussed, and only regions that are specifically active during disappointment are mentioned below.

Structure of the three sections of the insula
Figure 2. Insula.

Insula[edit | edit source]

The insula is the brain region responsible for knowing what actions are caused by the self and what actions are not, as well as learning and processing risk and uncertainty (Reeve, 2018). The anterior insula (see figure 2) monitors, evaluates, and consciously represents emotions and feelings that arise from bodily states monitored by the posterior insula (Reeve, 2018). When individuals experience disappointment their anterior insula becomes active (Chua et al., 2009; Mohr et al., 2010); it is also active in the presence of potential loss (Mohr et al., 2010). This could be because individuals can predict that they will feel disappointed if loss was to occur.

Prefrontal cortex[edit | edit source]

Rotating skull containing left Prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is highlighted
Figure 3. Prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex [PFC] is a large section of the brain (see figure 3) that is involved various processes, including decision making, working memory, emotional reactions, and movement (Kalat, 2019). It has been shown that the anterior regions of the PFC are responsible for decision making, evaluating which course will provide the best outcome, and the probability of achieving a good outcome (Kalat, 2019). This is why hemispherical differences, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex have been considered to be contributing factors to the experience of disappointment (Chua et al., 2009; Reeve, 2018; Kalat, 2019).

Hemispherical differences[edit | edit source]

The left prefrontal cortex [PFC] signals positive emotions and the right signals negative and avoidance emotions (Reeve, 2018). When someone expects a good outcome their left prefrontal cortex activates. However, if a bad outcome was to occur and expectations were not met, then the right prefrontal cortex activates. Next time the individual is in a similar situation, their right prefrontal cortex could activate and send a "no-go" message to avoid the situation and perceived disappointment (Reeve, 2018).

Ventromedial prefrontal cortex[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Brain image highlighting various cortical regions, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC).
Orbitofrontal cortex highlighted on brain MRI
Figure 5. Approximate location of the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) on an MRI.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex [VMPFC] (see figure 4) learns what choices are beneficial and what choices are not, adjusting decision making accordingly (Kalat, 2019). The VMPFC also monitors confidence in one's decisions (Kalat, 2019). As the VMPFC is connected to the insula, it is able to attach emotions to choices and other stimuli that is being considered (Reeve, 2018). For example, if you feel confident that you have made the right decision and will achieve a good outcome, you will feel more disappointed than you would have felt if you were less confident that you will achieve a good outcome.

Damage to the VMPFC has been shown to cause impairments in the ability to make considered decisions. Individuals with VMPFC damage tend to make impulsive decisions based on probability, rather than making considered decisions based on reality (Kalat, 2019). This can lead to constant or chronic disappointment as the VMPFC cannot adjust decision making based on previous experience. Below is an example of how the VMPFC works

Case study

You are playing Uno. You have 5 cards to play, and so do your two opponents. You only have number cards, and based off of the cards that have already been played, your opponents must have at least one draw 4 card. You strategically match the number that was last played so that you change the colour of the deck; this makes it more likely that a draw 4 card will be played after your turn, and not used on you.

Orbitofrontal cortex[edit | edit source]

The orbitofrontal cortex [OFC] (see figure 5) responds to information from the VMPFC. It is the part of the brain that changes and updates expected outcomes of our actions based on current circumstances (Kalat, 2019). The OFC actively differentiates between 'disappointing' (not good) and 'not disappointing' (good) options or outcomes, and chooses the option that is most likely to lead to a 'not disappointing' outcome (Reeve, 2018). Damage or inactivity of the OFC is associated with impulsive and otherwise poor decision making, leading to disappointing outcomes (Kalat, 2019). Below is an example of how the OFC decides what to do.

Case study

You decide to go to 54 Benjamin for breakfast. When you arrive, you remember that the last time you went there you didn't like the drink you ordered. You also remember that when you were there your friend ordered a drink that you liked the look of, and your friend said it was quite good. This time you order what your friend had last time and you are not disappointed.

Dorsomedial prefrontal cortex[edit | edit source]

The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex [DMPFC] (see figure 4) plays a role in both cognition and emotion (Eickhoff et al., 2016). The DMPFC is responsible for anticipating rewards, monitoring performance, selecting actions, and signalling errors and adverse outcomes (Taren et al., 2011); and is activated when individuals experience disappointment (Chua et al., 2009). The DMPFC regulates responses to unpredictable negative stimuli and regulates reappraisal and distraction (Helion et al., 2019). Once an emotion is identified, the DMPFC shapes the intensity of the emotion based on the individual's goals (Helion et al., 2019). The more invested or important the outcome is, the more adverse the opposite outcome is, and the more disappointment is experienced. Below is an example of how the DMPFC works.

Case study

Your assignment is finally graded and you receive a lower grade than you expected. You feel disappointed in yourself for achieving a lower grade than usual. However, your disappointment starts to disappear when you think about how important the class is to you. You know that it is important to do well, but this particular class is a major, not a core class, so you know that as long as you pass the class you are doing well.

Test yourself[edit | edit source]

1 Which brain region monitors whom causes what action? (spelling)

Orbitofrontal cortex

2 Which brain region modifies emotion intensity?

Prefrontal cortex
Dorsomedial prefrontal cortex

3 Damage to which brain region causes people to confidently make poor decisions?

Orbitofrontal cortex
Ventromedial prefrontal cortex

4 Which hemisphere signals positive emotions?


How can disappointment be managed?[edit | edit source]

After learning about the neurological processes that contribute to disappointment, it may feel as if disappointment is inevitable. After all, if you were to take a minute to think of the last time you felt disappointed, you would probably be able to think of an event that occurred in the last month. Because disappointment is so unpleasant, some researchers have found different ways to manage disappointment. The main three strategies to manage disappointment are lowering expectations, living up to expectations, and by avoiding risk-taking (van Dijk et al., 2003; Zeleenberg et al., 2000; Zeleenberg et al., 1998a). But should disappointment be managed?

Lowering expectations[edit | edit source]

When an outcome is unfavourable, we experience disappointment. One way to combat disappointment is to lower expectations (van Dijk et al., 2003). In general, people tend to lower their expectations when feedback or the outcome is anticipated in the near future. For example, as a patient gets closer to their surgery, their expectations of a positive outcome could reduce until the patient no longer wants surgery (van Dijk et al., 2003). de Meza and Dawson (2021) have found that people with mistaken expectations or unrealistic expectations (i.e., unrealistic optimism) experience lower levels of wellbeing. In the long-run, realists (people who have a realistic world view) have significantly higher wellbeing than both pessimists and optimists (de Meza & Dawson, 2021). Overall, lowering expectations leads to a lower chance of experiencing disappointment, however, it is important to keep in mind that this can lower your overall wellbeing if you gain a pessimistic outlook (van Dijk et al., 2003; de Meza & Dawson, 2021).

Living up to expectations[edit | edit source]

Disappointment, like many other emotions, can be anticipated. If disappointment is anticipated, people attempt to avoid it by living up to expectations (Zeleenberg et al., 2000). In this instance, disappointment is a motivator, either to decrease the likelihood of disappointment, or to increase the likelihood of a desired outcome (Zeleenberg et al., 2000). To live up to expectations, the amount of effort that an individual puts in must be able to increase the likelihood of a good outcome. Therefore, this method is only useful when an individuals effort is able to decrease the probability of disappointment and is only appropriate when effort or something controlled by the individual can lead to obtaining the desired outcome (van Dijk et al., 2003). For example, extra study and preparation can result in a better chance at passing a test which would decrease disappointment, but extra time studying a dice will not result in a better chance at predicting which number it will land on (van Dijk et al., 2003).

Avoid risk-taking[edit | edit source]

A more proactive approach to managing disappointment is avoiding it. Choosing safe alternatives that lead to known outcomes do not risk disappointment (Zeleenberg et al., 1998a, 2000). This approach could be called risk aversion (Zeleenberg et al., 2000). Below is an example of how risk-taking can be avoided, however, disappointment is not always avoidable. This begs the question, should disappointment be managed or avoided?

Case study

You are picking ice cream at a new restaurant and you have three options, vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. You like all three options, however, you find that some chocolate ice creams are inedible, and you only like specific strawberry ice creams. Vanilla is not your favourite flavour but you find it edible even if you do not completely like it. You pick the vanilla ice cream.

Should disappointment be managed?[edit | edit source]

There are multiple ways to manage, minimise, and avoid disappointment; should humans go to these lengths to manage an emotion? Table 2 demonstrates that even though disappointment can be negative, research has shown that there are some positives to the emotion. Overall, disappointment does have a purpose. Disappointment helps us improve our circumstances, improve ourselves, and alerts us to our own expectations and from this we readjust our expectations or adapt to avoid similar disappointing experiences in the future. For example, if someone continually disappoints us then we decide to distance ourselves from that person, or if we are disappointed in the feedback we receive we then work to achieve an acceptable standard, and if we travel with a specific company and their service is disappointing the next time we travel we will most likely try a different company. If disappointment is interpreted as a message that needs to be heard and acted upon, then disappointment occurs less and is perceived as less detrimental (Grainger, 1991).

Table 2

Pros and Cons of Disappointment

Pros Cons
Expressing disappointment encourages higher levels of cooperation in others (Olekalns & Druckman, 2014). Disappointment can involve feelings of powerlessness and wanting to do nothing (Zeleenberg et al., 2000).
Expressing disappointment can lead to helping behaviour in others (Johnson & Connelly, 2014). Disappointment can taint relationships, leading to blaming or scapegoating (Clancy et al., 2012).
Disappointment (from yourself or others) can cause you to work harder in the future or to work harder now to avoid future disappointment (Zeleenberg et al., 2000). Disappointment can lead to other negative emotions, such as anger (van Dijk et al., 1999).

Questions to consider:

  • What do you think about disappointment?
  • Is disappointment good or bad? Why?

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

So, what does this mean? Disappointment is a complex neurological process that occurs when your expectations are not met (Zeleenberg et al., 1998a). Whether you experience outcome-related disappointment, person-related disappointment, or self-related disappointment, your insula, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex work together to choose the most beneficial choice, determine how likely the beneficial option is, and signal when adverse outcomes occur (Reeve, 2018; Kalat, 2019; Taren et al., 2011). Sometimes disappointment is unexpected, however, when it is anticipated, techniques such as lowering expectations, living up to expectations, and avoiding risk-taking are effective in reducing disappointment (van Dijk et al., 2003; Zeleenberg et al., 1998a, 2000). Although disappointment is a negative emotion, it helps us to adapt, avoid negative outcomes, and improve ourselves (Grainger, 1991). Overall, successfully managing expectations is a difficult task, but when done well, reduces disappointment.

Can you answer these key questions:


What is disappointment? Disappointment is:


What causes disappointment?


How can disappointment be managed?

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bell, D. E. (1985). Disappointment in decision making under uncertainty. Operations Research, 33(1), 1–27.

Chua, Gonzalez, R., Taylor, S. F., Welsh, R. C., & Liberzon, I. (2009). Decision-related loss: Regret and disappointment. NeuroImage, 47(4), 2031–2040.

Clancy, A., Vince, R., & Gabriel, Y. (2012). That unwanted feeling: A psychodynamic study of disappointment in organizations. British Journal of Management, 23(4), 518–531.

de Meza, D., & Dawson, C. (2021). Neither an optimist nor a pessimist be: Mistaken expectations lower well-being. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 47(4), 540–550.

Eickhoff, S. B., Laird, A. R., Fox, P. T., Bzdok, D., & Hensel, L. (2016). Functional segregation of the human dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. Cerebral Cortex, 26(1), 304-321.

Grainger, R. D. (1991). Dealing with feelings: The disguise of disappointment. The American Journal of Nursing, 91(11), Article 10.

Helion, C., Krueger, S. M., & Ochsner, K. N. (2019). Emotion regulation across the lifespan. In D’Esposito, M., & Grafman, J. H. (Eds.), Handbook of clinical neurology (pp.257-280). Elsevier.

Izard, C. E. (2010). The many meanings/aspects of emotion: Definitions, functions, activation, and regulation. Emotion Review, 2(4), 363–370.

Johnson, G., & Connelly, S. (2014). Negative emotions in informal feedback: The benefits of disappointment and drawbacks of anger. Human Relations (New York), 67(10), 1265–1290.

Kalat, J. W. (2019). Biological psychology (13th ed.). Boston, MA, USA: Cengage

Lelieveld, G. J., Van Dijk, E., Van Beest, I., Steinel, W., & Van Kleef, G. A. (2011). Disappointed in you, angry about your offer: Distinct negative emotions induce concessions via different mechanisms. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(3), 635–641.

Loomes, G., & Sugden, R. (1986). Disappointment and dynamic consistency in choice under uncertainty. The Review of Economic Studies, 53(2), 271–282.

Maher, P. J., Igou, E. R., & van Tilburg, W. A. P. (2020). Disillusionment: A prototype analysis. Cognition and Emotion, 34(5), 947–959.

Matarazzo, O., Abbamonte, L., Greco, C., Pizzini, B., & Nigro, G. (2021). Regret and other emotions related to decision-making: Antecedents, appraisals, and phenomenological aspects. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, Article 783248.

Mohr, P. N. C., Biele, G., & Heekeren, H. R. (2010). Neural processing of risk. The Journal of Neuroscience, 30(19), 6613–6619.

Olekalns, M., & Druckman, D. (2014). With feeling: How emotions shape negotiation. Negotiation Journal, 30(4), 455–478.

Ramachandran, V.S., & Jalal, B. (2017). The evolutionary psychology of envy and jealousy. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1619–1619.

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion (7th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley

Taren, A. A., Venkatraman, V., & Huettel, S. A. (2011). A parallel functional topography between medial and lateral prefrontal cortex: Evidence and implications for cognitive control. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31(13), 5026–5031.

van Dijk, W. W., & van der Pligt, J. (1997). The impact of probability and magnitude of outcome on disappointment and elation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 69(3), 277–284.

van Dijk, W. W., & Zeelenberg, M. (2002). What do we talk about when we talk about disappointment? Distinguishing outcome-related disappointment from person-related disappointment. Cognition and Emotion, 16(6), 787–807.

van Dijk, W. W., Zeelenberg, M., & van der Pligt, J. (1999). Not having what you want versus having what you do not want: The impact of type of negative outcome on the experience of disappointment and related emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 13(2), 129–148.

van Dijk, W. W., Zeelenberg, M., & van der Pligt, J. (2003). Blessed are those who expect nothing: Lowering expectations as a way of avoiding disappointment. Journal of Economic Psychology, 24(4), 505–516.

Zeelenberg, M., van Dijk, W. W., Manstead, A. S. R., & van der Pligt, J. (1998a). The experience of regret and disappointment. Cognition and Emotion, 12(2), 221–230.

Zeelenberg, M., van Dijk, W. W., Manstead, A. S. R., & van der Pligt, J. (2000). On bad decisions and disconfirmed expectancies: The psychology of regret and disappointment. Cognition and Emotion, 14(4), 521–541.

Zeelenberg, M., van Dijk, W. W., van der Pligt, J., Manstead, A. S. ., van Empelen, P., & Reinderman, D. (1998b). Emotional reactions to the outcomes of decisions: The role of counterfactual thought in the experience of regret and disappointment. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 75(2), 117–141.

External links[edit | edit source]