Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Retrospective regret

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Retrospective regret:
What is the motivational role of retrospective regret?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Regret is often thought of as a unitary concept, however the anticiaption[spelling?] of, and retrospection on, regret are recognised as distinct psychological phenomena (Zeelenberg et al., 2000). Despite this, research specifically regarding retrospective regret is relatively sparce[spelling?] and largley[spelling?] consists of investigations in differences in experiences of regret. Such research has yielded functional models of regret, yet there has been little practical application of retrospective regret within psychology. This chapter aims to outline the history of research with respect to retrospective regret, and indicate some current practical implications for the concept as well as future areas for research.

Focus questions:

  • What is retrospective regret?
  • What is the psychological function of retrospective regret?
  • How can retrospective regret be utilised in mental-health and well-being?

Definition[edit | edit source]

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What is retrospective regret?[edit | edit source]

Regret is a complex negative emotion associated with the primary emotions of shame and guilt. Regret emerges from the counterfactual cognition of believing a situation may have resulted in a more beneficial outcome if a different action was taken (Zeelenberg, 1999a). Retrospective regret refers specifically to the experience of regret emerging from reflection on actions or in-actions which occured[spelling?] in the past and is most closely alligned[spelling?] with the layperson's implicit understanding of regret (Summerville, 2011).

Negative emotions, while unpleasant for an individual to experience, are not 'bad' emotions and typically serve adaptive psychological functions (Coifaman, Flynn & Pinto, 2016). Retrospective regret can be an adaptive response with self-regulatory and intrinsically motivational functions that promote behavioural change and cognitive re-appraisal of situations (Vashtein & Seta, 2019). However, retrospective regret can also become a maladaptive coping strategy when an individual engages in prolonged counterfactual rumination on 'the good that could of been', rather than what was actually possible (Kennedy, Deane & Chan, 2021).

Types of regret[edit | edit source]

There are two primary types of regret, retrospective and anticipatory. Anticipatory regret is the opposite experience of retrospective regret, that is feeling or expecting to feel regret prior to choosing a particular action or in-action in the future (Zeelenberg, 1999b). Throughout the history of regret research, contextual categories of regret such as hot, wistful and despair have been identified in seminal literature, however it is debated whether these catergories[spelling?] are considered meaningfully different from one another to be considered unique types of regret and such categories have largely fallen out of favour in favour of understanding regret as the result of either action or in-action (Gilovich, Medvec, & Kahneman 1998). This is because such categories effectively identify the unique antecedent behaviours and contexts present prior to experiences of regret, rather than significant differences in the emotional experience. This is not to say such catergorisation[spelling?] is not useful for discourse on regret in specific context, but rather to emphasise that such context does not fundamentally alter the cognitive process regret. As a general rule, fundamental experiences of regret can be categorised as being anticipatory or retrospective, resulting from either action or in-action.

History of research[edit | edit source]

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Defining regret psychologically[edit | edit source]

Early literature specifically regarding psychological investigations of regret was mostly concerned with defining regret as a psychological concept. A seminal paper by Landman (1987) introduces regret as a psychological concept questioning if regret ought to be considered a philisophical[spelling?], cognitive, or emotional phenomenon. In conceptual analysis, Landman suggests regret is a distinct psychological concept involving cognitive and emotional elements and concludes the analysis by questioning the function of regret. Although regret had been present in prior studies such as Bell's (1982) research into decision making under uncertainty, such articles only recognised regret as an emotional consequence of other behavioural phenomena. During this period economic theory dominated investigation of regret with Loomes and Sugden (1982) even coining the term 'regret theory' as an economic proof for predicting participant behaviour in hypothetical games of decison[spelling?] making under uncertainty. Regarding psychology, regret mostly existed in periphery to cognitive and behavioural research papers as seen Larrick's (1993) investigation of motivational factors in decision making behaviour in which it is suggested self-protective behaviours influenced individual decision making by motivating people to avoid decisions that could result damage to self-image and feelings of regret or failure.

However, as methodology in cognitive research developed new approaches became available to directly evaluate the psychological nature and function of regret. An article produced by Gilovich and Medvec (1995) summarises previous philisophical[spelling?] inquiries and economic approaches to investigating regret and emphasises inadequacies in these approaches revealed by emerging psychological research on counterfactual thinking. Gilovich and Medvec (pp.392-393) use their analysis of literature and experimental evidence to propose an explanation of regret as an emotion resulting from counterfactual thinking, noting a distinction between regret resulting from action and inaction; the later being claimed to be more severe because more time had to pass between the event of in-action and the experience of regret for memory to decay and therefore so significant counterfactual thinking could occur. Zeelenberg (1999a) offered a refined defintion[spelling?] of regret and its functionality defining regret as a negative cognitvely[spelling?] based emotion, the anticipation of which can influence behaviour and the experience of which can prompt people to learn from their mistakes. The suggested directions for future research provided in such articles prompted a new paradigm in decision research for considering the role of emotions such as regret in the cogntive[spelling?] and behavioural processes of decision making (Zeelenberg et al., 2000; Conolly & Zeelenberg, 2002).

Rregret[spelling?] and decision making[edit | edit source]

With regret defined as a psychological concept, further study largely remained within the role of regret in decision making processes. Early mini-theories of regret such as regret regulation were investigated in applied research under the discipline of economic/consumer psychology which examined experiences of regret related to consumer decision-making (Pieters & Zeelenberg, 2007). Alongside this applied research, anticipatory regret and retorspective[spelling?] regret emerged as distinct categories as the anticipation of regret became recognised as a self-regulation phenomena in decision making behaviour (Inman, 2007). This is the period where anticipatory and retrospective regret research somewhat diverges. Zeelenberg's (1999b) literature review is an early example of the increasing attention given to anticipatory regret in decision making research with many papers emphasising the anticipation rather than experience of negative consequences as predictive of decision making behaviour. This period of research also saw consolidation of the previously limited consensus on the cogntive[spelling?] and neurophysiological elements of regret. Anticipatory regret in decision making enabled regret to be investigated using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). A literature review by Coricelli, Dolan and Sirigu (2007), outlines how fMRI was used to determine neurological correlates of anticipation of regret by imgaging[spelling?] individuals when making choices between actions. The paper consolidates evidence that the orbitofrontal cortex interacts with neuron the amygdala to intergrate[spelling?] cognitive and emotional information to assign value to decisions and infleunce[spelling?] behaviour (pp261-263). Following this period, retrospective regret mostly saw further investigation in research into regret intensity, regret regulation, experiences of regret across the life-span and across cultures, and cognitive and neurological models of regret.

Differences in experiences of retrospective regret[edit | edit source]

The majority of research specifically regarding retrospective regret concerns differences in lived experiences of regret and the implications of retrospective regret on people's lives. One such example is Beike, Markman and Karadogan's (2009) Theory of Regret Intensity in which it is argued non-repeatable outcomes and perceptions of increased lost opportunity for past experiences with low psychological closure predict higher regret intensity than perceptions of future opportunity. Beike, Markman, and Karadogan conclude their article by suggesting that this intensity of regret for lost opportunity motivates individuals to act upon opportunites[spelling?] before they lose them altogether (pp. 395-396). Other research includes investigation of experiences of retrospective regret across the life span. Wrosch, Bauer, and Scheier (2005) produced similar results in research assessing the influence of age effects on regret intensity, finding older adults experience regret more intensley[spelling?] compared to young and middle-age adults as they have less opportunity to rectify past mistakes and this in-turn can have negative effects on quality of life.

Research has recently been expanded into the discipline of developmental psychology, with research exploring the development of retrospective and anticipatory regret in children as young as six years old (McCormack & Feeney, 2015). Cultural differences in the experience of regret have also been investigated to a limited extent. As most regret research has been performed on North American and European samples, Breugelmans et al (2014) studied the cultural differences in experiences of regret using a Taiwanese, United States, Dutch, and Isreali[spelling?] samples, finding the experience of regret is strongly generalisable across cultures, however, regret in the Taiwanese sample was significantly more intense in interpersonal situations compared to the United States sample which was more intense in intrapersonal situations. The variety of research outlined in this section largely makes up the conitnued[spelling?] research into retropsective[spelling?] regret thus far with recent adavances[spelling?] in research based on many of articles cited herein.

Current research and theory[edit | edit source]

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Neurology of regret[edit | edit source]

(fig.1) Rotating 3D rendered model of the orbitofrontal cortex in the human brain.
(fig.1) Rotating 3D rendered model of the orbitofrontal cortex in the human brain.
  • In terms of neurological correlates of regret, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex is assoicated[spelling?] with predicting behavioural consequences and the medial orbitofrontal cortex is associated with emotinal[spelling?] processing (refer to fig.1) (Sommer et al., 2009).

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Regret instensity[spelling?] and regret regulation[edit | edit source]

Literature concerning the intensity of the experience retrospective regret has yielded conflicitng[spelling?] results. Beike et al. (2009) proposed the Lost Opportunity Priniciple[spelling?] suggesting the intensity of retrospective regret increases when we have lost the opportunity rectify the decision causing the regret. However, a study by Summerville (2011) proposes a Dynamic Opportunity Principle suggesting regret experienced immediately after a decision a more intense when there is less opportunity and contrastingly retrospective regret intenisty[spelling?] increases over time as more future opportunities to rectify a decision emerge. Retrospective regret can functionally influence self-regulation by revealing inconsistencies between an individual's past behaviour and their future desired goals (Valshtein & Seta, 2019).

Regret and psychological development[edit | edit source]

Research has shown that children develop the ability to experience regret at approximately 6 years of age and to anticipate feeling regret at approximately 8 years of age (McCormack & Feeney, 2015). Further research also indicates that children who experience retrospective regret about a choice are more to make better choices in the future and may facilaitate[spelling?] learning delayed gratification (McCormack, Feeney, & Beck, 2020). Current and emerging studies continue to explore experiences of retrospective regret across the life-span and the functional implications of these experiences.

Motivational applications of retrospective regret[edit | edit source]

Further, psychologists are beginning to examine these findings in light of psychological well-being as the role of retrospective regret in self-regualtion[spelling?] is re-examined with suggestions that it may have a substantial role in goal-maintenance and psychological well-being (Valshtein & Seta, 2019; Sijtsema, Zeelenberg & Lindenberg, 2022).

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Applications and future research[edit | edit source]

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Retrospective regret in self-help and psychotherapy[edit | edit source]

Valshtein and Seta (2019) proposed that retrospective regret plays a functional role in self-regulation as retrospective regret can identify inconsistencies between an individuals[grammar?] behaviour and desired goals and incentivise alternative beahviour[spelling?] in the future. These findings could have clinical implications for patient/client goal-maintenance as clinicians could potentially encourage reflection on experiences of retrospective regret to reveal and interpret an individual's motivation or resistance to change.

Sijtsema, Zeelenberg and Lindenberg, (2022) suggest retrospective regret possesses a complex relationship with other negative emotions and various self-regulatory abilities. Without other functioninng[spelling?] self-regulatory abilities, the reflective element of regret and other negative emotions contributes to dysfunctional rumination which negatively impacts psychological well-being. The study also suggests the inability to inhibit impulses via self-regualtion[spelling?] may inhibit a person's ability to learn how to aviod[spelling?] decisions that result in negative consequences leading to repetitive experiences of retrospective regret. These findings shed light on the risk cycles of impulsivity pose to psychological well-being and may prompt an investigation of the relationship between retrospective regret and impulsive disorders.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Retrospective regret is a negative emotion which has adaptive motivational functions. These functions include a learning motivational function which encourages people to use past mistakes to inform proactive in decision making and reduce the likelihood of lost opportunites[spelling?]. Another proposed function is that retrospective regret revealse[spelling?] inconsistencies between an individual's past actions and their present values, allowing them to more clearly define what is presently important to them and what ought to done in similar situations in the future. Both of these functions have potential implications for mental-health. The later understadning[spelling?] could be utlised[spelling?] in self-help programs aimed at assissting[spelling?] individuals in coping with regret, by seeing the experience of regret as opportunity to redefine what is really important to individual in life. Furthermore, therapists may be able to utilise regret in a similar way to assist clients in establsihing[spelling?] change and maintenance goals for problematic and maladaptive behaviours in their life. Future research should emphasise practical implications of retrospective regret in the domain of mental-health wellbeing to progress the science of regret from a merely conceptual one, into a practical understanding which can have positive influences on the daily lives of individual.

See also[edit | edit source]

Anticipatory regret and motivation (Book chapter, 2021).

End of life regrets (Book chapter, 2017).

Regret (Wikipedia).

Regret (Book chapter, 2016).

References[edit | edit source]

Beike, D. R., Markman, K. D., & Karadogan, F. (2009). What We Regret Most Are Lost Opportunities: A Theory of Regret Intensity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(3), 385-397.
Bell, D. E. (1982). Regret in Decision Making under Uncertainty. Operations Research, 30(5), 961-981.
Breugelmans, S. M., Zeelenberg, M., Gilovich, T., Huang, W-H. & Shani, Y. (2014). Generality and Cultural Variation in the Experience of Regret. Emotion, 14(6), 1037-1048.
Coifman, K. G., Flynn, J. J. & Pinto, L. A. (2016). When context matters: Negative emotions predict psychological health and adjustment. Motivation and Emotion, 40(1), 602-624.
Connolly, T. & Zeelenberg, M. (2002). Regret in Decision Making. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(6), 212-216.
Coricelli, G., Dolan, R. J. & Sirigu, A. (2007). Brain, emotion and decision making: the paradigmatic example of regret. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(6), 258-265.
Gilovich, T. & Medvec, V. H. (1995). The Experience of Regret: What, When, and Why. Psychological Review, 102(2), 379-395.
Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H. & Kahneman, D. (1998). Varieties of regret: A debate and partial resolution. Psychological Review, 105(3), 602-605.
Inman, J. J. (2007). Regret Regulation: Disentangling Self-Reproach From Learning. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 17(1), 19-24.
Kennedy, C., Deane, F. P. & Chan, A. Y. C. (2021). "What Might Have Been...": Counterfactual Thinking, Psychological Symptoms and Posttraumatic Growth When A Loved One is Missing. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 45(1), 322-332.
Landman, J. (1987). Regret: A Theoretical and Conceptual Analysis. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 17(2), 135-160.
Larrick, R. P. (1993). Motivational Factors in Decision Theories: The Role of Self-Protection. Psychological Bulletin, 113(3), 440-450.
Loomes, G. & Sugden, R. (1982). Regret theory: An alternative theory of rational choice under uncertainty. The Economic Journal, 92(1), 805-824.
McCormack, T. & Feeney, A. (2015). The development of the experience and anticipation of regret. Cogntion and Emotion, 29(2), 266-280.
McCormack, T., Feeney, A., & Beck, S. R. (2020). Regret and Decision-Making: A Developmental Perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 29(4), 346-350.
Pieters, R. & Zeelenberg, M. (2007). A Theory of Regret Regulation 1.1. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 17(1), 29-35.
Sijtsema, J. J., Zeelenberg, M., & Lindenberg, S. M. (2022). Regret, Self-regulatory Abilities, and Well-Being: Their Intricate Relationships. Journal of Happiness Studies, 23(1), 1189-1214.
Sommer, T., Peters, J., Gläscher, J., & Büchel, C. (2009). Structure-function relationships in the processing of regret in the orbitofrontal cortex. Brain Structure and Function, 213(1), 535-551.
Summerville, A. (2011). The Rush of Regret: A Longitudinal Analysis of Naturalistic Regrets. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(6), 627-634.
Trimmer, E., Westerhof, G. J., & Dittmann-Kohli, F. (2005). "When Looking Back on my Past Life I Regret...": Retrospective Regret in the Second-Half of Life. Death Studies, 29(7), 625-644.
Valshtein, T. J. & Seta, C. E. (2019). Behavior-Goal Consistency and the Role of Anticipated and Retrospective Regret in Self-Regulation. Motivation Science, 5(1), 35-51.
Wrosch, C., Bauer, I. & Scheier, M. F. (2005). Regret and Quality of Life Across the Adult Life Span: The Influence of Disengagment[spelling?] and Available Future Goals. Psychology and Aging, 20(4), 657-670.
Zeelenberg, M. (1999)a. The use of crying over spilled milk: A note on the rationality and functionality of regret. Philosophical Psychology, 12(3), 325-340.
Zeelenberg, M. (1999)b. Anticipated regret, expected feedback and behavioral decision making. Journal of Behavioural Decision Making, 12(1), 93-106.
Zeelenberg, M., van Dijk, W. W., Manstead, A. S. R. & vanr de Pligt, J. (2000). On bad decisions and disconfirmed expectancies: The psychology of regret and disappointment. Cognition and Emotion, 14(4), 521-541.

External links[edit | edit source]

Don't regret regret (TED Talk Youtube).

The science of regret(TEDx Talk Youtube).

Regret always follows the activation of antoher emotion (Psychology Today).