Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Comparisons, Mental Models, and the Action Effect in Judgments of Regret

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Comparisons, Mental Models, and the Action Effect in Judgments of Regret

Article excerpt

People tend to attribute more regret to a character who has decided to take action and experienced a negative outcome than to one who has decided not to act and experienced a negative outcome. For some decisions, however, this finding is not observed in a between-participants design and thus appears to rely on comparisons between people's representations of action and their representations of inaction. In this article, we outline a mental models account that explains findings from studies that have used within- and between-participants designs, and we suggest that, for decisions with uncertain counterfactual outcomes, information about the consequences of a decision to act causes people to flesh out their representation of the counterfactual states of affairs for inaction. In three experiments, we confirm our predictions about participants' fleshing out of representations, demonstrating that an action effect occurs only when information about the consequences of action is available to participants as they rate the nonactor and when this information about action is informative with respect to judgments about inaction. It is important to note that the action effect always occurs when the decision scenario specifies certain counterfactual outcomes. These results suggest that people sometimes base their attributions of regret on comparisons among different sets of mental models.

The outcomes of our decisions often evoke in us strong emotional reactions. Thus, the successful investor may experience elation, and the unsuccessful investor may feel dejected, regretful, or disappointed. The regret to which a negative outcome gives rise is determined, at least in part, by a comparison of the factual outcome and some counterfactual alternative or reference point (see, e.g., Baron & Ritov, 1994; Boles & Messick, 1995; Kahneman & Miller, 1986; Mellers, 2000; Ritov & Baron, 1995). The referent of this comparison may be the most easily imaginable alternative outcome (Kahneman & Miller, 1986), an alternative outcome that one has observed (Mellers, Schwartz, & Ritov, 1999), an outcome achieved by another person (Boles & Messick, 1995), or the status of things before the decision was made (Baron & Ritov, 1994). In this article, we will be concerned with how best to understand the comparisons that determine how much regret people attribute to decision makers who have made different decisions but achieved the same negative outcome.

Our concern with decision makers who make different decisions but achieve the same outcome stems from the literature on the action effect. One of the best-known claims to have been made about the role of comparisons in determining the emotional consequences of decision making is that when negative outcomes follow action, these outcomes are more painful than the same outcomes when they result from inaction. The earliest finding in the literature about the action effect is that people attribute more regret to an actor than to a nonactor following a negative outcome (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982). Participants in Kahneman and Tversky's experiment received the following scenario:

Mr. Paul owns shares in company A. During the past year he considered switching it to stock in company B, but he decided against it. He now finds that he would have been better off by $1,200 if he had switched to the stock of company B. Mr. George owned shares in company B. During the past year he switched to stock in company A. He now finds out that he would have been better off by $1,200 if he had kept his stock in company B. Who feels greater regret? (p. 142)

A large majority of the participants in this study felt that Mr. George, the actor, would feel more regret. This action effect has been replicated and generalized to positive outcomes (in which the questions asked concerned feelings of joy) by Landman (1987) and Gleicher et al. (1990).

An early explanation for the action effect was that inaction is more normal than action (Kahneman & Miller, 1986). …

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