Why You Are Less Susceptible to Regret Than You Think

I recently noticed that I delete my promotion e-mails instead of just unsubscribing. Why? Is deleting these messages easiest? Does unsubscribing take a lot of effort? Or do I feel some anticipated regret? Such anticipated regret may affect many decisions in our live, whereas in reality you are less susceptible to regret than you might think.


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Dutch Postal Code Lottery

Feelings of regret may occur when you are not participating in the Dutch Postal Code Lottery. The unique combination of numbers and letters of your zip code make up your lottery number. This allows people not participating in the lottery to see whether they would have won if they had participated. We may fear missing out on winning the lottery by anticipating the regret we may feel when the lottery is won by our neighbors, but not by us. However, we can easily reduce our fear by buying a lottery ticket. Although you may find lotteries irrational in the sense that the expected value of the lottery ticket is negative, you may still want to participate because of anticipated regret of your neighbors winning the lottery and you do not.

My e-mail checking routine

Every afternoon, I am doing my daily routine of checking my personal e-mail accounts. First my Outlook account, then my Gmail account. For both accounts I follow the same procedure. I respond to some e-mails that require action. I read some e-mails and decide to take action later. I (partly) read some e-mail and archive them for later reference. Finally, I delete the e-mails without reading them, mostly promotion e-mails.

Luckily, I don’t have too many promotion e-mails in my focused folder (as Microsoft calls it) or my primary folder (as Google calls it). Most promotion e-mails are in other folder (as Microsoft calls it) or my promotions folder (as Google calls it). So I go to these folders next, select all e-mails and delete them without paying any attention to them. But if I do not pay any attention to these promotion e-mails, why not unsubscribe?

Reasons for deleting instead of unsubscribing

I tell my self that deleting these messages is easiest. After all, I select all e-mails and delete them in one swift action. Sometimes I find myself distracted by an e-mail that seems interesting, but this is rarely the case. It does however reduce the efficiency of deleting these e-mails. And even though deleting these e-mails takes little time, doing it day after day and year after year, still seems like a waste of time if I don’t read these messages.

I tell myself that unsubscribing takes a lot of effort. However, I can unsubscribe to most newsletters by a single click: no login- required, often not even confirmation needed. I could start with all promotion e-mails where unsubscribing is easy and use the junk button (as Microsoft calls it) or my report spam button (as Google calls it) for the other e-mails. So is this really why I delete these messages instead of unsubscribing?

Fear of missing out

I tell myself that … well, what are other ways to rationalize deleting my e-mails instead of unsubscribing? Could it be that I am just experiencing the fear of missing out with something as unimportant as unsubscribing to promotion e-mails? This could be the fear of missing out on an important article about a new behavioral insight. After all, such an article could just provide the right information if I have the time to read it at that specific moment. I do not always have that time, but I always think I will in the near future, where I always seem to have plenty of time. It could also be the fear of missing out on a reminder for restocking my stack of toilet blocks to keep the rinse water deep blue and provides intense sensations of freshness. I do restock about once a year or so, but suppose I forget? That is why I probably delete these messages instead of unsubscribing because of what scientists call regret aversion.

Feelings of regret

According to behavioral economists Graham Loomes and Robert Sugden, regret aversion relates to an individual’s capacity to anticipate feelings of regret and rejoicing. Regret aversion rests on two fundamental assumptions. First, most of us experience the sensations we call regret and rejoicing. Second, we try to anticipate and take those sensations into account when making decisions under uncertainty.

When I unsubscribe to the alumni newsletter of my university and a fellow alumni tells me about an advertised symposium on behavioral science she attended, I experience regret. I wish I would not have unsubscribed from that newsletter. When I unsubscribe to the alumni newsletter of my university and a fellow alumni tells me there is never anything interesting in the newsletter, then I experience rejoice. And when considering unsubscribing form this newsletter, I anticipate the regret I may be experiencing later (such as in the first case) and therefore refrain from unsubscribing. So that raises the question: how likely is it that I will actually experience regret?

The likelihood of regret

Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and his colleagues did an interesting experiment that may be helpful in answering the likelihood of regret. They asked subway passengers about the amount of experienced regret. They interviewed passengers who entered the track about 1 minute after the train had left (narrow margin) and passengers who entered the track about 5 minutes after the train had left (wide margin). They asked them about the amount of regret they experienced. Which passengers experienced more regret, do you think? If you are like most people, then you expect the passengers who missed the train by a narrow margin to experience more regret than passengers who missed the train by a wide margin. Was that the case? No, it wasn’t. Both groups of passengers experienced about the same amount of regret.

The researchers then asked another group of passengers about their anticipated regret: the passengers on a subway train were asked to predict how they would feel if they missed a train by a narrow margin (1 min) or a wide margin (5 min). In this case, these passengers anticipated more regret if they anticipated missing the train by a narrow margin. So passengers thinking about missing the train anticipated regret, but passengers actually missing the train experienced far less regret than was anticipated by the first group of passengers regardless of the margin. So we seem less susceptible to regret than we might think.

Happily unsubscribing ever after

So it is also unlikely that I will experience regret after unsubscribing from my e-mails. I have been happily unsubscribing and continue to do so until this very day without any regret. I can definitely recommend it to anyone, because regret is not as likely as you think it is.

And this may apply to many situations where you may expect regret. Do you anticipate regret for unsubscribing to the lottery? Do you anticipate regret for unsubscribing from a job you hate? Do you expect to regret working less than you currently do? Do you expect to regret looking at your phone less often? Do you expect to regret spending more time with your kids? Do you expect to regret asking someone out? Do you expect to regret spending more time getting healthy? Most likely not. But more than focus on making the right decisions to avoid regret, you could also focus on making decisions to the best of your ability with the information you have now. In avoiding regret, you could focus on accepting the outcomes instead of adjusting decisions.

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Niels Vink (1975) is a behavioral designer and sports enthusiast. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior. He lives and works (out) in Haarlem.

Want to know how you can get your diversity and inclusion programs, marketing, communication and sales in better shape? Drop me an email at niels@behavioralinsight.nl

Source of top image: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels



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