• Giorgia

Emotions in decision-making: to regret is human, to move on is better

Have you ever dwelled on the words “What if…”?

Regret is an intrinsically human emotion, we take a decision and then we compare the actual outcome with any possible alternatives. We say “What if…” and imagine different scenarios and judge our capability to take decisions.

The problem is that regret is a negative emotion, we imagine we would be better off had we taken a different decision. It can affect our emotional wellbeing.

Do you have any of those niggling (or strong) regrets, and you wish they would go away?

If the answer is yes, the first step is to acknowledge that you may have taken a good decision which – unfortunately – led to a negative outcome.

The second step is to find the source of the regret. There is an important distinction: regret can be the results of a decision (outcome regret) or how the decision was taken (process regret). This distinction is important because it leads to different options on how to manage regret.

Outcome regret is the result of a decision. The key question is whether we had all the information beforehand. Most of the time we don’t, and the hindsight bias we experience creates a negative emotion.

A solution is to understand the context and choose how we interpret past events.

Example. You are in a shop and there is a TV on sale you really like, and on impulse you buy it. A couple of weeks later you see that brand advertising a new better model. You regret the decision, and you would have bought the new model. The problem here is that you did not have all the information at the time.

Process regret is the result of how the decision was taken. It is the process we follow. Many of our decisions are taken by the automatic brain (Systems 1 and 2 for those familiar with Kahneman’s theory). It is quick and easy, but does not consider all available information.

A solution is to follow a more structured approach to decisions and use techniques that engage more with the cognitive brain.

Example. Back in the shop, you have done lots of research, assessed the options and know what television you want. You buy the TV only to discover a couple of weeks later about the new model. Your process is sound – and you can use it again with confidence – and it is an unfortunate case of bad luck.

What can we do about this emotion of regret?

Regret can stop us taking decisions, because of fear of getting it wrong or inertia. What can we do in these case? Of course, it depends on the situation, however there are two quick options. The first one is to ‘bite the bullet’, if the indecision is greater than any possible

, we should just go for it (or we may end up waiting for years to buy a new tv). The second one is to seek expert advice to address the uncertainty (our ‘early adopter’ friend who knows about new products before they hit the market).

Concluding thoughts:

  • Regret happens. What’s important is to stop associating a bad outcome with a bad decision making. Reflect on the root cause and learn from it.

  • The experience of regret relies on knowing what the alternatives would have been, so it may be better not to seek out all the “What if…” alternatives.

  • Regret does affect our wellbeing, sometime we should just let go...

This is a very brief insight into the emotion of regret and its impact on decision making. Please comment, share and or contact me with any questions about decision-making and behavioral change.


Byrne, RMJ (2016). Counterfactual Thought. Annual Review of Psychology, 2016, Vol.67, p.135-157

Zeelenberg, M (1999). Anticipated regret, expected feedback and behavioral decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision

Zeelenberg, M and Pieters, R (2007). A Theory of Regret Regulation 1.0. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2007, Vol.17(1), pp.3-18

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