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A friend thinking of emigrating to Australia recently bought a plane ticket to make a scouting trip there. After paying the non re-fundable flight cost he confessed to agonising about the decision he had made. Was it right, was it wrong? What if he did not go, or when he got there he wasted his short time there?

Decisional regret and how to avoid it, is a well-known aspect of decision making that seldom attracts the attention that it deserves. HR practitioners for example, are constantly making decisions or advising others on ones, yet are as susceptible to decisional regret as anyone else.

Decisional regret or remorse is unhealthy in a number of ways. Not only does it cause stress, it may also lead to destructive attempts at unravelling a decision which can then cause as many problems as sticking to the original one.

Economists built their dismal science on the dubious assumption that people generally make rational decisions. The reality is that we mainly make decisions based on emotion, underpinned by perhaps some limited efforts at logical thinking. By not acknowledging the emotional charge attached to most important decisions there is the danger of triggering unhealthy decisional regret.

There is nothing wrong with agonising over a potential decision, this means you will probably start identifying important adverse consequences as well as benefits. But it becomes less useful if it paralyses choice making or sets in motion a high level of decisional regret later.

There is something obsessively compelling and oddly unsettling about confronting unrealities that might have been and in practice this can sap energy, enthusiasm and a willingness to take reasonable risks. Research amongst patients involved in health care decisions for example shows regret was greater among those who changed their decisions than those who did not.

HR advisers may rightly encourage those making decisions to think imaginatively about the possible consequences of their choice, for example: “If you decide to sack this person, have you thought through what will make it stick?” Realistic imaginings like this can plunge people either forward or backwards in time, into outcomes that might have been, but never were, or might yet be. Imagining alternative worlds is arousing–producing either soothing or discomforting feelings.

Each time we make a decision, we experience some discomfort, since there are often various advantages and disadvantages to every choice. After the decision has been made though, we are just as likely to have a further sense of discomfort.

An HR adviser who is anxious about a possible decision needs to consider to what extent this concern should be shared with those on the receiving end of their advice. When others are involved, one person’s anticipated decisional regret can be socially contagious and make the actual decision making even harder.

One useful technique an HR adviser can use to help a group of people with their decision making and reduce the chances of decisional regret, is by encouraging the group to time travel.

That is, you ask the group to tell each other stories that look both forward and backward in time about the decision that must be made. This forward-backward communication allows the group to re-story any decisional outcome that might have been, or might yet be different.

Avoiding potential decisional regret

Here is one way to reduce the likelihood of decisional regret occurring in the first place.

Answer each of these questions about your impending decision using a simple scale of Agree 1-2-3-4-5 Disagree.

1) This seems to me the right decision

2) I could seriously regret the choice I make

3) If I had a second chance to make it, I’d probably still make the same one

4) Making this decision could do me a lot of harm

5) When I tell an imaginary story of the decision I might make, it is full of negative consequences

6) On balance I think my proposed decision could be described as wise

7) I am not investing a large amount of mental energy or effort into making this decision

The lower the total score the less likely you are to experience decisional regret. A score above 21 indicates you are likely to suffer from decision regret


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