Zeelenberg et al’s “The Inaction Effect and the Psychology of Regret” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2012) opens with a fascinating fact:

A study of verbal expressions of emotions in everyday conversation revealed that regret was the second most frequently named emotion (only love was mentioned more frequently; Shimanoff, 1984).

The piece then reviews earlier findings:

One of the central issues in current regret research concerns the question of whether people regret the actions they have taken more than the actions they have foregone (i.e., inactions). Because of the large number of studies showing that outcomes achieved… through action lead to more regret than do the same outcomes achieved through inaction [ton of cites] Gilovich and Medvec (1995) nominated this as “the clearest and most frequently replicated finding” (p. 380) in this domain.


Gilovich and Medvec also found instances in which inactions were regretted more than actions. However, these authors studied the temporal pattern of regret and showed the existence of an inaction effect for long-term regrets: When looking back, people experience most regret over the paths not taken. Hence, Gilovich and Medvec argued that, over time, a number of psychological processes decrease the regret of actions taken and bolster the regret of actions forgone. Kahneman (1995) argued that the short-term and long-term regrets that Gilovich and Medvec investigated were actually two different types of regret: hot regret, which is the direct emotional reaction to the outcome, and wistful regret, which is the less intense emotion “associated with pleasantly sad fantasies of what might have been” (p. 391). In a recent publication, Gilovich, Medvec, and Kahneman (1998) agreed on the existence of hot and wistful regret, thereby restating the fact that, ceteris paribus, actions produce more hot regrets than do inactions.

Zeelenberg et al.’s original contribution: They show that inaction leads to more regret than action as long as action is the normal response to prior events.  As a general rule, doing something abnormal and failing is the perfect storm of regret.  Details:

[T]here may be many situations that clearly call for action. In fact, the supposition that actions are more abnormal than inactions seems to be contradicted by game-theoretical research showing that people often base their decisions on a simple win stay-lose change heuristic (e.g., Macy, 1995). Likewise, research in consumer psychology often shows that people only take action when a prior experience was negative. For example, in their study on brand switching, Tellis and Geath (1990) demonstrated that consumers primarily switch brands after a negative experience; after positive or neutral experiences consumers tend to remain inactive and stick to their chosen brand. Furthermore, indirect support for this reasoning comes from the colloquial expressions that one should never change a winning team and that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. These sayings suggest that one’s decision to take action or not might be based on earlier outcomes. The sayings also imply that action should follow a negative prior outcome or event: Fix it when it is broken, and change a losing team.

Taken together, the above leads us to propose that negative prior outcomes can induce a tendency to act and, consequently, make action more normal than inaction. If so, this would imply that in the case in which negative prior outcomes demand action to be taken, an inaction effect should be found; that is, actions foregone are regretted more than actions taken. Thus, if after experiencing a negative outcome, one does not take action to prevent further losses, one would feel intense regret if these losses do occur (e.g., asking oneself, “Why didn’t I do anything?”). However, if one did take action to prevent further losses but was unsuccessful, the regret will be less intense (e.g., saying to oneself, “At least I tried!”).

The authors run five experiments to test their revisionist theory.  They seem to be right five times out of five.  From the write-up of the Experiment #5:

This experiment reveals, as do the previous ones, that the effects of action/inaction on counterfactual emotions are very much contingent on what is known about prior outcomes.

The general lesson: As Nathaniel Bechhofer often insists, regret is endogenous.  When inaction is normal, trying and failing leads to the most regret.  When action is normal, however, doing nothing and failing leads to the most regret.  When the FDA has a perceived responsibility to actively protect us, approving bad drugs leads to regret (and blame).  But in an alternate universe where the FDA has a perceived responsibility to let people make their own decisions, delaying good drugs would lead to regret (and blame) instead. 

A little shock doctrine, anyone?