Would Have, Could Have, Should Have - When Deliberating Makes Choosing Feels Like Losing

With all the choices consumers are given, it stands to reason that we should feel pleased with our decisions if we have given them careful thought. But often we feel a sense of loss for the options that got away. Professors Ziv Carmon, Klaus Wertenbroch, and Marcel Zeelenberg look into this phenomenon and discover that it might not just be our natural fickleness that fuels this regret. In this recent working paper they reveal that consumers often become attached to the options offered, and in the deliberating process actually begin to feel a sense of ownership. When a decision is finally made, consumers experience a sense of loss for those not selected, a feeling that is often as powerful as the positive feelings for the option selected.

by Ziv Carmon,Klaus Wertenbroch, Marcel Zeelenberg
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

As consumers, we have all had the experience. We face a difficult decision, do mountains of research, review each of the options, ask friends and family for input, and finally make a well-informed selection of one of the options. But immediately afterwards the options we didn’t choose start to look more interesting than they seemed before the choice and we begin second-guessing our choice. When and why do we experience this kind of regret?

Ziv Carmon and Klaus Wertenbroch, INSEAD Associate Professors of Marketing, and Marcel Zeelenberg, Professor of Social Psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, looked into the question, conducting a series of experiments to determine why choosing often feels like losing. They discovered that in the process of weighing options, consumers develop “option attachment”, a sense of ownership of the items they could choose from. While buyer’s remorse arises after the consumer receives some new information about the item selected or not selected, option attachment is a different phenomenon, producing an almost immediate sense of regret or loss, even though the decision maker hasn’t learned any new information.

The authors theorized that the extent of post-choice discomfort (just how bad one feels) and the accompanying change in the attractiveness of foregone options (just how good the unselected choices look after the choice) depend on two main factors: 1) the degree of option attachment prior to the choice, and 2) the size of the loss.

They test their theory in a series of experiments, each of which manipulates a different aspect of attachment. Variables included physical proximity (actually seeing the available options), duration of deliberation, forfeiture versus acquisition choices, hedonic versus utilitarian choices, and prior ownership. Results across nine experiments with some 1,000 respondents on three different continents consistently supported the option attachment theory.

The authors provide a review of the results in the context of several classic psychology theories, such as cognitive dissonance theory, and discuss how the findings help expand these theories.

They conclude with a list of suggested follow-up research questions, including exploring the model when consumers are faced with two undesirable choices (such as two painful medical procedures), research into whether some people are more prone to post-choice discomfort than others, and a study of how the negative effects of option attachment change over time.


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