Brain Want, Get, Regret, Repeat
“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations—one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: Do it or do not do it—you will regret both.” —SØREN KIERKEGAARD, BALANCE BETWEEN ESTHETIC AND ETHICAL, VOL. 2: “EITHER/OR”
Going Z Instead of Y…Oh Why?
Madison was never entirely sure that she wanted to become a lawyer. After spending two years at a law firm, she was becoming absolutely certain that she should never have become one. Her expectations for the profession may have been distorted, or perhaps she simply had a naive view of the law from the start. She was willing to concede these points, but doing so was not making her day-to-day existence any easier. To continue on in a profession that failed to inspire any degree of passion and commitment was a horrible prospect, but how could she possibly change direction after years on this road, to say nothing of the huge financial investment she had made to get there—one that would take years to pay off? For Madison, every day was a draining struggle with regret.
After digesting a vignette like that, I’m sure everyone reading recalls with discomfort similar situations in their lives—perhaps not this extreme, but no one living who makes decisions escapes the pain of regret in at least one area of life. Usually more than one, in fact. Our brains experience regret as a form of loss, and as we’ve seen, avoiding loss makes our brains happy. The problem is that avoiding regret is rarely possible, and attempting to do so is perilous business in its own right. We also fail to realize that regret is not one thing; it manifests in overt and covert forms that materialize in our brains as varying levels of loss. For all the fear and loathing it generates—to say nothing of the thousands of songs and poems it inspires—regret is a deceptively complicated topic.
Wile E. Coyote™, Faux Girlfriends, and eBay®
For those of us who grew up watching Looney Tunes cartoons from Warner Brothers, the Road Runner™ was a Saturday-morning staple. The premise was simple: An especially lucky road runner (a fast desert bird) is relentlessly pursued by a desperate coyote. No matter what the coyote does, including using every contraption imaginable from the Acme Corporation, the road runner manages to escape him. The first of these cartoons aired in 1949, and since then the inexhaustible duo have appeared in countless episodes, ranging from shorts to full-length features. With such a simple premise and just two characters, it’s interesting to wonder why the cartoon has been so popular for more than sixty years. We’ll come back to that question in a moment.
Director Steven Soderbergh is known for movies that take on gritty topics without pulling too many punches. His style is to give the audience an “on the scene” perspective by using handheld cameras, moody lighting, and by putting viewers in the middle of the action. In 2009, he turned his attention to high-end prostitution in a film called The Girl-friend Experience. The film follows a successful call girl as she tries to take her career to the next level. What she offers, as the title suggests, is the experience of having a beautiful girlfriend without having to manage an actual relationship. Her customers are wealthy, often married, and each seeks a different experience from her. Some want sex; others want to talk, with various shades between. At the same time, she is attempting to manage an ongoing relationship with her oddly understanding boyfriend, though the relationship steadily falls apart as the movie goes on. At one point, the main character thinks that she may want to have a true relationship with one of her customers, and he agrees that they should try and see where it goes. Predictably, it goes nowhere. As soon as the chasm between the “girlfriend experience” and an actual relation-ship is breached, the fantasy is over.
You would have to search long and far to find someone who has not bid for something on eBay. Volumes of research have been written about the online auction phenomenon. Of particular interest is what drives people to continue to bid on items even when the price eventually exceeds the value of the item and/or what the bidder was originally willing to pay.1 Many factors have been cited—and no doubt the reasons are not the same for all people—but the one consistently mentioned factor is that the allure of anticipating the win is immensely powerful. It is so powerful, in fact, that after focusing for days on winning an item and fighting off those who would nab the prize, bidders often feel an emotional letdown. They won the item, and in a few days it will arrive in the mail—excitement not included.
As I am sure you have noticed, the three examples I just described share a central theme: the power of wanting trumps the satisfaction of getting. For a sixty-year-old cartoon featuring nothing more than a coyote and a bird to remain popular, the tension of wanting has to be preserved. It doesn’t “work” for the coyote to ever get the road runner. People love the cartoon because Wile E. Coyote wants the prize with every fiber of his being and forever fails to reach it. For the girlfriend experience to remain a profitable endeavor, it cannot become the “girlfriend for real experience.” The energy (and money) is derived from the tension of wanting some-thing that will never materialize. And for many bidders on eBay, it is the thrill of the hunt that motivates higher and higher bids, even when the same item could be bought elsewhere for less money and with less time required to get it. Obtaining the thing in question often leads to a dull, hopeless feeling peppered with confusion. That is the regret of getting— a feeling of loss that, if it could speak, would ask, “Now what?”
Singing the Habituation Blues
And as you might expect, our brains have an answer to that question: Target a new reward. That answer makes sense because the brain’s reward system is structured to drive us to continually seek beneficial rewards, be they food, water, sex, shelter, or proxies for these, like money and all that it can provide. The problem, of course, is that when we get the thing we wanted, the game is over. On top of this, something psychologists call habituation begins to set in and we get used to the thing in question in a mere matter of days or weeks.2 An example of this process that we see every day is new technology purchases; whether it’s a new computer, video game console, or smart phone. First, we feel elation in anticipation of buying the item. When we finally do buy it, that high pitched elation gives way to a more grounded “liking” of the item, which, over the next few weeks, dissipates into a neutral appreciation. That stage may last for a while, but eventually the item becomes just another possession in your collection with certain usefulness (if it’s even still useful). The initial feeling of elation can never be totally recaptured for that item once the cycle comes full circle. What’s the brain’s answer? Focus on something new and get back to elation.
In fact, regret can set in even before we finalize getting or doing that which we’ve anticipated. Research shows that regret is one of the most influential factors in decision making because we feel it so strongly once the anticipation of reward starts settling into something much less exhilarating. The drop-off often begins even before the decision is finalized.3
Several examples illustrate the process. For instance, consider a man or woman who is divorced and remarried multiple times. Psychology research on habituation in relationships suggests that many people simply never overcome the elation drop-off once the reality of their commitment sets in. Regret fills the void, and the marriage suffers until it ends. Not by coincidence is the divorce rate for second marriages higher than it is for first marriages; attempting to recapture the anticipation of reward simply sets off a new cycle of habituation and regret.
Another example that most of us can relate to is purchasing a new car. It’s not uncommon for regret to set in even before the deal is finalized because once the would-be buyer enters the showroom, he or she is faced with comparisons between the car they intend to buy and all the other cars on display. With each observation of features other cars have that the intended car lacks, the door of regret is cracked open a bit more. When the car is purchased, post commitment comparisons begin with other cars on the road, in magazines, on TV, and so forth. In this case, habituation and regret move along parallel tracks.
Or consider moving to a new city and starting a new job. It’s common to believe that the new place or position will be significantly better than what we have become accustomed to. “Newness” has a sort of mystical draw, even though it’s incredibly short-lived and rarely meets expectations (because those expectations are colored by an unattainable desire for ongoing elation). When we move to the new place and start the new position, the same cycle of regret sets in as anticipation of reward drifts off—hence the quirky but insightful axiom, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
Regret Death Match: Wanting versus Liking
Let’s say that you’re on eBay and see an auction for something you really want. You end up having to fight for it right down to the wire, but eventually lose to a last-second sniper. Annoyed, you go prowling around and find the same item for more money as a “Buy it Now.” Without hesitation, you buy it, paying a substantial premium over the ending price from the auction you just lost. A week later, the item arrives at your house. You open the box and are elated, right? Wrong. In fact, you can’t even recall why you liked the thing so much to begin with. That night, you put it back up for auction on eBay.
Does this make any sense to you?
A study published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that this scenario, with whichever elements you’d rather sub in, isn’t only plausible, it’s predictable, and it has much to do with the peculiar love-hate relationship between wanting and liking and the regret fallout it produces.
As we’ve all experienced, when you really want something but are prevented from getting it, you want it all the more. This is even truer of relationships than objects. The jilted lover syndrome is a Hollywood mainstay because just about everyone can relate. Researchers started with that well-known phenomenon and wanted to know how they could create a “counter drive” dynamic between wanting and liking—that is, causing someone to pursue her “want” even after her “like” is gone. In one experiment, participants were offered an opportunity to win a prize they said they wanted. When they failed to win (in other words, when their “want” was jilted), they were offered the opportunity to buy the same item for more money than it cost those who won it. By a significant margin, those who were jilted did exactly that. But when then asked if they’d like to trade the item away, most of the jilted crew said “yep, take it.” In another experiment, participants were given the opportunity to win Guess® brand sunglasses. Those who were jilted and didn’t win the sunglasses were then presented with an opportunity to choose between a Guess wristwatch and a Calvin Klein® wristwatch. Most of those who were jilted chose the Guess wristwatch. You might think that’s because they really like Guess products, right? Nope. When asked for their evaluation of Guess wristwatches, they rated them surprisingly low. What’s going on here? The research team believes that when our desire is stoked, we’re in an intense emotional go-mode. But when we’re jilted, the intensity of our emotion goes negative, and that negativity rubs off on the object of our original desire, catalyzing feelings of regret. The weird thing is that the same intensity still pushes us forward to get (or try to get) the thing we wanted even when we are beyond liking it.4
The Counterfactual Conundrum
For all its negatives, regret actually serves an important adaptive function. Without it, our ability to learn, change, and improve would fall short of what our species has needed to survive and thrive. Regret as a learning tool happens through something called counterfactual thinking—a dynamic with two razor-sharp edges.5 When we look back on a decision and think, If I had done A instead of B, then I wouldn’t have to deal with horrible C, we are engaging in counterfactual thinking. Madison, from this post’s introduction, thinks to herself that if she had pursued her original goal of becoming a graphic designer and not been so frightened by the possibility of not finding a good job after graduation, then she wouldn’t dread every day that she must now function as an attorney. As the name implies, counterfactual thinking involves thinking of what could or should have happened given a different set of facts. From a learning standpoint, this can help us immensely because the next time we face a similar situation we will have the results of our counterfactual thinking in mind and not make the same errors again (hopefully).
From an emotional-health standpoint, spending too much time in the counterfactual examination room can lead to serious consequences.6 If we allow ourselves to dwell on a bad decision and everything else we could have done to avoid a bad outcome, negative emotions will over shadow the learning benefits. For those suffering from depression, obsessive counterfactual thinking is like propane gas feeding a fire.
How Stores Manipulate Regret
Because regret is such a powerful dynamic, it’s one of the marquistactics used by cajolers of every stripe to get us to see things their way. For example, a salesperson will set up the factors in a buying decision such that it appears making one choice instead of the other will amount to immediate and lasting regret. This is how stores sell product insurance plans, which are really just sources of pure profit because seldom does anyone use them. Maybe you’ve heard this line when purchasing a new TV or computer: “The insurance plan on this item is less than 5 percent of the total cost, and you’ll have peace of mind that your investment is covered if, for example, a power surge blows out the equipment.” Power surges are a favorite tool to elicit counterfactual thinking because they’re so mysteriously dangerous. You never know when one might strike. “Imagine,” the pitch continues, “if you don’t buy the plan and a year from now your $2,000 TV is destroyed by a sudden power surge.” The customer’s mind races to the future, a smoldering TV in his living room, $2,000 gone just like that. A mere 5 percent now to avoid that terrible fate later? Sure, it’s the smart thing to do. Think again. Odds are, you are paying for nothing.
Unfortunately, beating ourselves up over poor decisions is a hard habit to break. Our brains revisit these decisions because learning from error is central to a happy brain’s reason for being. The problem is that we lack an internal governor to regulate how much of this learning process to indulge, and eventually what could help us ends up hurting us.
And the Good News?
So what can we do about it? Recent research suggests that we can “train” our brains to temper anticipation of reward without squashing it altogether (certain brain injuries can result in loss of anticipation of reward; it’s not something most of us would want to lose). At the same time, psychology research indicates that when we’re making decisions about what we want, focusing on experiences involving friends and family yields greater long-term rewards and far less regret than purchasing material items. The issue is more complicated for relationships, but solid research has shed light on this complex topic as well.