Other people's misfortune alleviates our own regret

There can be few feelings worse than that pang of regret when you know you've made a bad decision. The perfect antidote, according to psychologists in Holland, is hearing about the misfortune of others....unless, that is, the future offers us a chance to make amends for our earlier mistake.

Frenk van Harreveld and colleagues first invited nearly one hundred students to place either a large or small bet on how well they thought they'd do at a trivia quiz. The procedure was fixed so that students opting for a safer, small bet were given an easy quiz, whereas the students who chose a large bet were given an impossible quiz, thus inducing both groups to regret their choice of bet.

Afterwards, some of the students were given fake information showing that they'd actually fared pretty well financially compared with the majority of other students -news that helped alleviate their regret. By contrast, hearing that other students had fared better did not serve to increase regret.

In a second experiment, Frenk van Harreveld and colleagues showed that the best antidote for regret depends on whether or not the future offers a way for us to make amends. Students once again bet on their performance at a trivia quiz - not for cash this time, but rather to determine how long they'd have to spend on a forthcoming arduous memory task.

The procedure was again fixed so that those betting conservatively (for the prize of a short rather than long memory test) were given easy quiz questions, while those who bet riskily (for the prize of no memory test at all) were given impossible questions, thus inducing both groups to experience regret.

Next, half the students were told that yet another quiz would give them a chance to earn some money. With the prospect of a second quiz, the students tended to shun hearing about the relative misfortune of other students at the previous quiz, choosing instead to hear information on likely future quiz topics. In this case, the researchers said, useful information was a better antidote to regret than hearing about others' misfortune.

"When there is no chance to do better in the future, misery seems to love (and even actively look for) company," the researchers concluded. "If however, there is a subsequent opportunity, regret can motivate us to do better next time."

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Researchvan Harreveld, F., van der Pligt, J., Nordgren, L. (2008). The relativity of bad decisions: Social comparison as a means to alleviate regret. British Journal of Social Psychology, 47(1), 105-117. DOI: 10.1348/014466607X260134
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