Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sunday dollars+sense: For some of us buying things hurts...

For some people, buying a house or a car or a mobile phone plan is anything but pleasant. They are worried they will make the wrong decision and then as soon as they have made it they are certain they did.

“How could I have been so stupid” and “the other one would have been better” are among the cries we hear from the perpetually regretful.

They become engulfed by a almost physical torment that eats away at the enjoyment they should be getting out of the decision they have made.

Sometimes they are right...

If you just spent thousands on the now-abandoned HD DVD format, you are correct to feel upset. If you bought a Beta video player (or a Leyland P76) in the 1970s you have become the butt of never ending jokes.

But most of the time the anguish is self-created. And thanks to new research just published in the British Journal of Social Psychology help is at hand.

Frenk van Harreveld and colleagues from the University of Amsterdam deliberately created feelings of regret in the minds of first-year psychology students by manipulating the outcome of a betting game.

They gave the students real money and asked them to bet either a big or a small amount on how well they would perform in a trivia quiz.

Unbeknownst to the students, those who placed small bets were given easy questions and those who placed big bets were given hard ones. All were given reasons for regret.

Then they were shown (fake) results purporting to show how other people had fared in the betting game. Those who discovered that others had done badly too lost their regret. Intriguingly, those shown that other students had done well felt no worse.

The results suggest that the antidote to regret is information (which might explain why people who have just bought cars or computers or houses continually scan the pages of newspapers for information about the deals on offer AFTER they have made their purchase).

If the information shows you are in good company, it will help. If it doesn’t, it won't hurt. In the researchers words, “misery loves company”.

But the company needs to be real. When they tried the same thing showing each student how just one other student had performed, and when they asked each student to merely imagine that others had done badly, it didn’t help at all.

HT: BPS Research Digest.

van 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.

Peter Martin,
Anticipated regret. Life Matters ABC Radio National. January 28, 2002.