Dan’s Hike, Part 4: Don’t Look Back

By: Stephanie Tepper

Regret is a complex emotion bridging the categories we use to conceptualize time. We often think of regret as a feeling we experience in the present towards a focal point in the past, but this focus can fluidly shift from past choices to future hypotheticals and back again. In this final exploration of metrics from Dan’s hike of the INT, we’ll dig into the feeling of regret and how it can motivate behavior change.

making small tweaks to environments

“What was I thinking?”

In our work at the CAH, we focus on making small tweaks to environments to change the cognitive processes we use to make decisions. Emotion can be a strong mechanism for behavior change when we consider how certain choices will make us feel. Social scientists have designed a host of creative studies on affective forecasting, or the prediction of our future emotions, ultimately uncovering that we make a number of prediction errors in this realm. When it comes to regret, we often overestimate the negative feelings we’ll have in response to discovering we chose the wrong path. In one set of studies, researchers found that people overestimated how much more regret they’d feel if they “nearly won” than if they lost by a wider margin1.

Even though our experiences of regret don’t mirror our expectations, the anticipation of regret can be a powerful motivator. Think back to the last time you felt like staying in but went out for a drink anyway, simply because you were afraid of missing a noteworthy story or a bonding opportunity (side note: us young folks have an acronym for this and psychologists are catching on).

While our socializing habits are undoubtedly worthy of psychological interest, researchers have applied these concepts to the realm of health behavior research, using anticipated regret to help people make decisions that will benefit them in the long run. In one study, Abraham and Sheeran found that participants were more likely to exercise if they anticipated that they would regret failing to do so2. This effect strengthened the connection between people’s intentions and their actions, a gap that we seek to close in our work at the lab.

action goals gap

I’m happy to report that throughout the course of Dan’s hike, his feelings of regret have remained relatively low. From this measure, it seems like his time in nature has provided a needed break from comparisons to hypothetical alternatives. Since he started this journey with the goal of assessing the future directions of his work, his choices will hopefully be guided not by anticipated regret but by a clear sense that he is following his passions with no thoughts of turning back.

1Gilbert, 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.

2Abraham, C., & Sheeran, P. (2003). Acting on intentions: The role of anticipated regret. British Journal of Social Psychology, 42(4), 495-511.