On the psychology of ‘if only’:
Regret and the comparison
between factual and
counterfactual outcomes
Dijk & Zeelenberg (2004)
A Critique:
By Gabriel Hong, Timothy Abayomi-Cole and Krissie Towers
Content Page
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Background information

The comparison process in regret

Methods

Experiment 1
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Experiment 2

Experiment 3
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Sample issues
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How appropriate is the study design – scenario study problems

Statistical analyses

Validity of the measure of regret

Research Relevance

Conclusion

References
Background Information

Regret is a negative emotion, we experience it when we realise or imagine that our
current situation could have been better had made different choices.

Factual outcome = the obtained outcome


Counterfactual outcome = The missed outcome that could have been attained had
you behaved differently.


e.g. Selecting 1 box out of 3, each box have a token. If you select the box with chocolate
in it, the chocolate is the factual outcome
In the other 2 boxes there were flowers, the flowers would therefore be the
counterfactual outcome.
This paper argues that there is a lack of psychological research concerning the
comparison process that is so essential to the experience of regret (how factual
outcomes compare to counterfactual outcomes)
The comparison process of regret

There are 2 issues to address regarding regret, specifically in the comparison
process between counterfactual and factual outcomes

The researchers aimed to solve these through 2 experiments:


Uncertainty (experiment 1)  Whether you are certain or not about what the outcome
could have been if you behaved differently can affect the amount of regret felt

Category (experiment 2)  Whether counterfactual outcomes are of a similar or
different type will play in a role in influencing the comparison process generating regret
An additional aspect explored in this paper is the effect of Individual differences:

Individual Difference and their effect upon regret (experiments 3)  Whether having a
high or low need to compare yourself to others influences how much regret one feels.
Experiment 1

Hypothesis: Uncertainty about what could have been will reduce feelings of
regret

Method: 108 students were randomly sorted into 4 groups and were asked to
imagine that they’d picked one of two boxes, each of which had a token
hidden in it

Regardless of what box they picked, all won a squeezy stress ball.

Of the 4 groups, 3 were told of the token that they had missed out on a CD of
their choosing, a walkman, or ‘a dinner for two’ respectively.

The last group was not told specifically what token they missed out on.

After this, participants indicated to what extent they would feel regret (1 not
at all; 9 very much).
Experiment 1

Findings: The students in the uncertain condition were found to have
significantly lower regret.

It was also found that students who missed out on a CD had a significantly
lower level of regret than those who missed out on a more expensive prize.
(dinner for 2, Walkman)

Conclusion: They have therefore shown, that knowing what the alternative
outcome would have been, i.e. removing the sense of uncertainty, intensifies
the feeling of regret.
Experiment 2

Hypothesis: Regret is more intense if the counterfactual and factual outcomes
come from different product categories.

Method: Students were asked to imagine playing the penultimate
“guaranteed-win” lottery scratch card.

In the “same category” condition, students were informed that they won a
€15 book (drinks) token but missed out on a €50 book (drinks) token

In the “different category” condition, students informed they won a €15
drinks (book) token were informed they missed out on a €50 book token
(drinks).

Students were then asked to rate how much regret they would feel on a 7
point scale (1 = not at all; 7 = very much).
Experiment 2

Findings: More regret was anticipated when the obtained and missed outcome
were from the same category compared to when they were different.

Conclusion: Comparability seems to be at the basis of regret, and that
incomparability may shield people from the experience of regret.
Experiment 3
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Method: 74 students volunteered to participate. At the beginning of the academic
year the Iowa-Netherlands comparison orientations measure (INCOM) was
administered. Those who fell in the highest and lowest 30% recruited 8 months
later.

2 (Missed token) x 2 (comparison orientation) design.

Randomly assigned to one of four conditions (Missed token: €50 book token vs. €50
liquor store token) x 2(comparison orientation: low vs. high).

All participants informed that they’d won a €15 book token.

Informed that the remaining scratch card was bought by someone else:


Half told that the other person had won €50 book token
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Other half told that the other person had won €50 liquor token
After this participants were asked about how much regret they would feel
Experiment 3

Hypothesis: That people with a high need to compare would be less
influenced by the difficulty to compare, and thus they would suffer from
regret.

Findings: main effect of comparison orientation indicted that participants
with a high need to compare reported more regret than participants with a
low need to compare. Participants tended to report less regret when the
missed token was from a different product category as the obtained token.

Participants with a high need for comparison gave high regret ratings
regardless of the product category of the missed token and vice versa.

Conclusion: That the social comparison process seems add to regret.
Therefore to try and understand the psychological processes leading up to
regret it is useful to explicitly investigate the comparison process that lies at
the basis of regret.
Sample issues

Experiment 1:
Social Science students at Leiden University - 47 males, 61 females, mean
age = 21.7 years
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Experiment 2:
Social Science students at Leiden University - 66 males, 114 females, mean
age = 21.08 years

Experiment 3:
First year Social Science at Tilburg University – 11 males, 63 females, mean
age = 19.42 years

Issues with the sample:

All participants were students

The majority of participants were females, especially in experiments 2 and 3

Mean age of participants in all experiments is 19-21 years

Jokisaari (2003) used a sample of 176, ages ranging from 19-82 showing there are significant age
differences in relation to the experience of regret

Bjälkebring (2014) showed that younger adults reported more experiences and anticipated regret than
older adults.
How appropriate is the study design?

Participants were merely imagining regret rather than experiencing it –

Regret ratings primarily reflected participants predictions on how they think they
would feel.

When people anticipate how they will feel, they insufficiently anticipate the
post decisional processes – such as dissonance reduction, self-deception, ego
defence, emotion-based coping (Gilbert and Ebert, 2002)

People may overestimate the regret (Gilbert, Morewedge, Risen, and Wilson
2004)
Statistical analyses problems

The paper uses three different p values as being ‘significant’


(p<.01. in Experiment 1, p<.001 in Experiment 2, p<.05 in Experiment 3)
From a statistical point of view Scale of 1-9 this does not provide enough
interpolating points of view.

We cannot assume the normality required to conduct a one way ANOVA i.e. our
data is too compact.

In Experiment 3 in the investigation of main effect of a missed token the
ANOVA returned figures of F(1,70) = 3.77, p< .06.

The results for experiment 3 do not explicitly mention a comparison of
variation.
The validity of the measure of regret

Inconsistent scales measuring regret

9 point scale for experiments 1 and 3 and a 7 point scale for experiment 2


Psychometric literature generally suggests that having more scale points is better
but there is a diminishing return after around 9-11 points (Nunnally, 1978)
Single item measure of regret
Is the research relevant?

Retaining Consumer Loyalty


AT&T vs. MCI
Capturing Market share

V8 (beverage not engine!)
Conclusion
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Paper does attempt to address an issue that has real world implications
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
Comparison process has not been investigated thoroughly before
However:

We did not feel as if the paper was written in a coherent manner


The inclusion of what was considered significant was not included in the
introduction


Design not written up clearly enough e.g. paragraph on pilot on materials for experiment
1.
Results not considered significant by the scientific community were reported as being
significant i.e. main effect of missed prize in experiment 3
Although, acknowledged in the discussion, the relevancy of the findings of this
paper are ambiguous as an imaginary scenario study was conducted

Future studies should look to conduct a real-life scenario on regret.
References

Bjälkebring, P. (2014). Age Differences in Experience and Regulation of Affect. - doctoral Dissertation

Camille, N., Coricelli, G., Sallet, J., Pradat-Diehl, P., Duhamel, J. R., & Sirigu, A. (2004). The involvement of
the orbitofrontal cortex in the experience of regret. Science, 304(5674), 1167-1170.

Gibbons, Frederick X., and Bram P. Buunk. "Individual differences in social comparison: development of a scale
of social comparison orientation." Journal of personality and social psychology 76.1 (1999): 129.

Gilbert, D. T., & Ebert, J. E. (2002). Decisions and revisions: the affective forecasting of changeable outcomes.
Journal of personality and social psychology, 82(4), 503.

Gilbert, D. T., Morewedge, C. K., Risen, J. L., & Wilson, T. D. (2004). Looking forward to looking backward the
misprediction of regret. Psychological Science, 15(5), 346-350.

Jokisaari, M. (2003). Regret appraisals, age, and subjective well-being. Journal of Research in Personality,
37(6), 487-503.

Nunnally, J. C. (1978). Psychometric Theory. McGraw-Hill Book Company, pp. 86-113, 190-255.

Tsiros, Michael and Mittal, Vikas (2000). Regret: A Model of Its Antecedents and Consequences in Consumer
Decision Making Journal of Consumer Research, 26(4), pp. 401-417
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On the psychology of `if only`: Regret and the comparison between