Brexit and Regret: Psychology, Not Politics

Last Thursday (June 23 2016) Brits voted in a referendum for leaving the European Union. The next day, when results came in, there was a generalized surprise. Almost nobody expected the results to be 52% for leaving and 48% for remaining in the EU.

Several articles pointed out that some (many?) of the leave voters regret their vote and wish they could reverse it. See: “I’m a bit shocked.” Some Britons are already regretting their vote for Brexit is just one of them

Since the internet already is full of comments on how this vote came to be, on the (lack of) honesty of the campaign and on the consequences of the UK leaving the EU, I propose to focus on the emotion of Regret.

The source of regret is the decision-maker’s awareness that she or he could have done better.

Regret about decisions made in the past is called Retrospective regret or Experienced regret in the sense that the feeling is actually experienced.

Experienced Regret is a psychological punishment for a bad decision in the past. This punishment is usually useful for not making the same mistake in the future.

Some people who regret their vote would like to be able to vote again. This is an illustration of how regret works: you realize you made a mistake and want to not repeat it in the future.

Experienced Regret is very useful in repeated decisions, but not so much in once in a life-time decisions, such as the Brexit vote. In the case of the leave / stay vote, most likely there will be no “second chance” to not repeat the same mistake in the future.

Decisions (good or bad) have two components: (1) outcome and (2) the process of decision making (how we made the decision).

We feel regret about the outcomes of our decision and we feel regret about how we made the decision. These are called in scientific terms Outcome regret and Process regret.

When we regret a bad decision we certainly regret its outcome. This implies that we make a comparison between the actual outcome and alternative outcomes, which, in turn, implies knowing or at least imagining the outcomes of all options.

In the case of the Brexit vote, the “stay” outcome was known: business as usual. The “leave” outcome was only imagined since, even after the vote, no one knows exactly what will happen.

Unfortunately the “leave” outcome was presented in a sugar-coated manner by its supporters. The reality will, probably, give more reason to regret the decision.

The exact outcome of the decision to leave the EU is not fully known. It has become clearer that it will not be the idealized version that the “Pro-Leave” campaigners described.

I believe, a lot of those who voted to leave the EU experience Process regret – they regret the way in which they made the decision to vote leave.

In the hours after voting ended and after the results were made public, there was a surge in google (UK) searches for “what is Brexit?” and “what is the EU?” etc.

We don’t know for sure that these searches were made by leave voters, but it is very interesting how looking for information happened after the vote took place.

Many of the leave voters would have been much better off if they would have experienced Anticipated Regret.

Anticipated regret has the role of making us aware of the consequences of our decisions, it stimulates us to make, or at least try to make, better decisions. If we become aware that we might experience regret in the future we have all the motivation to avoid the miserable feeling.

Anticipated regret occurs (only) when decisions are difficult and important, which is a good thing: we don’t want to anticipate regret for every little decision we make.

I wonder if some of the leave voters believed their decision (vote) to be unimportant.

Anticipated regret becomes stronger when it is possible to find out the outcomes of both chosen and forgone options, which in the case of the Brexit vote is very likely. What will happen in the UK after leaving the EU will be contrasted to how life was before leaving.

As any normal human beings, the Brits who voted to leave the EU and now regret it will deploy some of the following approaches to manage the regret they experience.

Decrease the importance of the decision: this is not so important after all; there are more important things to worry about.

Justify the decision: I am a patriot and voted with sovereignty in mind.

Deny the responsibility for the decision: I was manipulated into this decision by the politicians and the media.

Re-evaluate the alternative outcome: it would have been worse if we stayed.

I’m afraid that as time passes there will be more leave voters who will regret their decision if they become aware of the causal link between their vote and future developments.

This post is documented from: Pieters, Rik, and Marcel Zeelenberg (2007), “A Theory of Regret Regulation 1.0” and commentaries, Journal of Consumer Psychology, 17 (1), 3-35.

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