Why people are reluctant to exchange lottery tickets, but will happily exchange pens.
© Nasrul Ekram
Regret might not make a list of the most powerful emotions. It would probably include things like anger, happiness, jealousy, sadness and especially for us English, embarrassment.
We tend to think of regret as essentially a backward-looking emotion. We regret things in the past, like not trying hard enough in school, how we treated a friend or the things we said to our partner in the heat of an argument. In this sense you might argue that it's useless: why regret something you can't change?
But regret isn't just a backward-looking emotion, it also looks forward and it can be a terribly powerful emotion which affects our behaviour in the here and now. That's because we also have the power to anticipate feeling regret in the future, which we naturally try to avoid. My favourite example involves a simple study about lottery tickets and pens.
Would you swap the ticket?
In this study participants were given lottery tickets - not real ones, but organised by the researchers so that one person could win. Then they were asked if they would be willing to exchange them for another one which had an identical chance of winning (Bar-Hillel & Neter, 1996
). To encourage them to switch tickets, they were offered a tasty truffle. Even though there was no difference between the tickets and there was a treat as an incentive, less than 50% of participants agreed.