Few people doubt the merits of pausing to "think things through" before making a decision. Without doing so, we fear we may end up making a decision that leads to harm and misfortune. However, this process is itself a double-edged sword that can lead us astray.
We've all been forced to make tough decisions in life. From career progression and where to live to which route to take on a trip, we navigate life's choices by considering our options and weighing them against each other. In the context of these decisions, we attempt to predict the negative consequences from an action or decision and the likelihood that those consequences will actually occur.
Regret- we seek to avoid it when we can
In a famous study on Regret Theory, Loomes and Sugden present the idea that in making decisions, individuals not only consider the knowledge they have and the resources at their disposal, but also the likely scenarios that will result from their choices. They further suggest that the pleasure associated with the results of their choices depends not only on the nature of those results but also on the nature of alternative results. Individuals consider the regret their future selves may feel if they know they would have been better if they had chosen differently. Likewise, they consider the joy their future selves may feel if the consequences of their decisions turn out to be optimal. Thus, both a cause and a consequence of our desire to avoid losses (loss aversion) is our desire to avoid the pain of regret.
According to researchers, individuals exhibit “regret aversion” when they fear their decision will turn out to be wrong in hindsight. Sometimes, we engage in regret aversion before making a decision, leading us to hem and haw and lose out on opportunities. Other times, we engage in regret aversion after a decision is already made, leading us to hold on to losing assets or undesirable positions because we don’t want to admit our choice was not the best one. Many of the interventions that behavioral economists suggest, such as automatic enrollment, default options, and providing information to consumers, are set up to reduce the ex post regret individuals will face for not doing something that’s in their interest.