To Do Or Not to Do: Differences in the Cognitive Availability of Action and Inaction Regrets

Priyali Rajagopal, Ohio State University
Sekar Raju, Ohio State University
H. Rao Unnava, Ohio State University
[ to cite ]:
Priyali Rajagopal, Sekar Raju, and H. Rao Unnava (2002) ,"To Do Or Not to Do: Differences in the Cognitive Availability of Action and Inaction Regrets", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 124-125.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 124-125

TO DO OR NOT TO DO: DIFFERENCES IN THE COGNITIVE AVAILABILITY OF ACTION AND INACTION REGRETS

Priyali Rajagopal, Ohio State University

Sekar Raju, Ohio State University

H. Rao Unnava, Ohio State University

There has been an increasing research interest on the role of emotions in consumer decision-making and regret is viewed as an important emotion in this context. One major area of focus in the research on regret has been the distinction between regrets of action and regrets of inaction and their impact over time. While early findings indicated that regrets of action (what people did) resulted in greater regret than regrets of inaction (what people failed to do), a number of recent research studies find that over time, there appears to be a shift in people’s patterns of regret. Thus, while in the short term, people typically regret their actions more than their inactions, they seem to regret their inactions more than their actions in the long term.

Gilovich and Medvec (1995a) have posited that this temporal pattern of regret has multiple determinants, including factors that reduce the pain of action regrets more than inaction regrets (e.g. differential dissonance reduction for actions versus inactionsBGilovich et al 1995), factors that increase the pain of regrettable inactions more than actions (e.g. an increase in self-confidence over timeBGilovich, Kerr and Medvec 1993) and factors that promote the cognitive availability of regrettable inactions more than regrettable actions (the Zeigarnik effectBSavitsky et al 1997)

While some of the explanations listed above have received some empirical support, there is as yet much left unexplained. More specifically, the differential cognitive availability of actions and inactions has not yet been fully explored. If actions and inactions do demonstrate systematic differences in cognitive availability, there must be differences in the memory structure of such actions and inactions that drive such differential availability. The present paper attempts to investigate the temporal pattern of experienced regret from a memory structure perspective and provide insight into the underlying factors leading to differential cognitive availability of actions and inactions.

Cognitive availability is related to retrieval in memoryBinstances that are available and accessible in memory are easily retrieved. Factors affecting cognitive availability and ease of retrieval can be broadly classified into three categoriesBbreadth, depth and salience. Breadth refers to the number of different categories in the memory network that are related to the retrieval cue and hence, get activated at the time of retrieval. Greater the breadth, greater is the probability of retrieval and shorter is the time taken to retrieve an instnce (Anderson and Reder 1979). Depth refers to the number of within-category instances that are related to the retrieval cue. Greater depth indicates stronger memory traces that are more easily retrievable (Craik and Lockhart 1972). Salience is the frequency of retrieval of the instance. Instances that are retrieved more frequently would be easier to retrieve and recall than instances that are retrieved less frequently. The greater the salience, the greater would be the probability of retrieval and the shorter the retrieval time (Rundus 1971; Alba and Chattopadhyay 1985).

In the context of regret, breadth refers to the number of different categories that are impacted due to the action/inaction, depth refers to the number of consequences or outcomes under each category and salience refers to the frequency with which people access their regrets of action/inaction. We propose that in the short term, actions will be retrieved more easily than inactions due to greater perceived breadth, depth and/or salience of the consequences of actions than inactions. However, in the long term, inactions will be retrieved more easily than actions due to greater perceived breath, depth and salience of their consequences as compared to actions.

Across two studies we find that inactions are more accessible in the long term than actions, but there is no significant difference in accessibility between actions and inactions in the short term. This result is robust across two different measures of accessibilityBtimed responses and reaction times. We also demonstrate that intrusions in memory are consistent with these differences in accessibility over time. Our experimental evidence rules out differences in depth and salience as explanations. While we do not find significant differences in the breadth of impact, the differences are in the right direction. One reason for the lack of significance could be the age of our samples (undergraduate students). Previous research (Savitsky et al 1997) has found that the temporal pattern of regret is more pronounced with ageBolder people tend to regret their inactions more than younger people.

We also considered an alternative explanation that deals with the emotions evoked by the different types of regret. Gilovich et al (1998) showed that actions and inactions appear to evoke different types of emotions in people. While actions predominantly evoke what were termed as "hot" emotions (anger, shame etc), inactions seem to predominantly evoke what were termed "wistful" emotions (contemplation, nostalgia, etc.) and "despair" emotions (emptiness, helplessness etc.). We found significant differences between actions and inactions in two of the categories- hot and wistful. All actions and short-term inactions primarily evoked hot emotions, while only long-term inactions evoked wistful emotions. The lack of difference between short-term actions and inactions is consistent with the lack of difference in their cognitive accessibility found in Studies 1 and 2. Thus, long-term inactions appear to evoke a different set of emotions in people as compared to actions and short-term inactions.

This area holds tremendous potential for future research. Some possible areas include substantiating the role of breadth of impact on accessibility, possible moderating variables such as age and experience, the role of emotions in influencing accessibility and the implications for marketing decisions such as consumer reactions to framing anticipated regret.

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