Do People Regret Their Unhealthy Behaviors?

If you want to change your behavior, anticipating the regret you’ll feel before you act can be a strong deterrent.

By: Louise Lee
illustration of a man in a suit holding a smiley face in front of his face, with flames in the background

illustration by Alex Nabaum / TheISpot.com

Think about that sinfully delicious cake you will have for dessert tonight. You probably feel guilty already.

Indeed, that level of regret you feel even before you indulge may be higher than what you’ll feel just after you actually consume all those calories, according to new research by Manoj Thomas, Nakashimato Professor and associate professor of marketing at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, and Helen Chun, associate professor of services marketing at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration.

Chun and Thomas co-authored the research with Joowon Park, MS ’15, PhD ’17, who earned his graduate degrees at Johnson and is an assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong. (“Cold Anticipated Regret versus Hot Experienced Regret: Why Consumers Fail to Regret Unhealthy Consumption,” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, University of Chicago Press, vol. 4, no 2. [April 2019]: 125–135).

“Cold” vs. “hot” regret and denial

Because regret helps us remember our mistakes and avoid repeating them, it can play an important role in helping us modify behavior, especially unhealthful or otherwise undesirable conduct such as overeating. But regret is hard to pin down.

“Regret is a momentary experience that changes with timing and context because of various latent psychological processes,” says Thomas.

Specifically, the researchers say, when you think about engaging in self-defeating or otherwise undesirable behavior, you’re temporally distant from it and can evaluate it calmly and deliberately, producing a “cold” and unemotional “anticipated” regret. The same is true when you think about something bad you did a few hours or days ago. But immediately after you commit an undesirable action, you’re red-faced and in a state of emotional and “hot” regret. Your natural psychological defensive mechanism kicks in, putting you in a state of denial to preserve your sense of self.

“As human beings, we want to protect our ego and identity, so after engaging in behavior that threatens our sense of self, our immediate response is to deny,” says Chun. That defensive psychological response reduces the intensity of your “hot” regret to a level even lower than what you felt prior to your action.

And that reduction has real consequences for our future behavior, adds Thomas. “By lowering regret, that psychological immune system also lowers regret’s beneficial effects of helping you remember and avoid mistakes,” he says.

Tiramisu and chocolate … or not?

The researchers conducted a field study of about 400 diners at the upscale restaurant in Cornell’s Statler Hotel, Taverna Banfi, known for its dessert buffet of tiramisu torta, chocolate crunch, and other treats. Customers in the “anticipated regret” group, who took a survey before the meal, stated whether they planned to eat lunch and dessert and indicated on a numerical scale the level of misgiving they anticipated about having dessert. The “experienced regret” group, who took surveys after the meal, indicated if they had lunch and dessert and how much regret they actually felt. The surveys also asked guests if they were trying to lose weight.

Results showed that among both dieters and non-dieters, the levels of regret anticipated prior to the meal were higher than levels of actual regret experienced just afterwards. Differences in regret levels were greater among those aiming to lose weight, suggesting that those dieters who ate dessert realized that their behavior derailed their progress and had a “hot” psychological reaction that suppressed their immediate post-dessert regret.

The results suggest that efforts to change behavior should focus on confronting people before they act, when their level of regret is high. An antismoking initiative, for instance, might encourage smokers to “think of the next time you smoke and the harm you’ll do to your lungs” instead of asking them to “think about that last cigarette you smoked and the harm you caused to your lungs.” Because of the intense negative emotion that accompanies regret, creating a high level of misgiving in smokers prior to a cigarette may boost their chances of quitting, the researchers say.

“Making people anticipate regret beforehand would be a stronger motivator to change their behavior than making them reflect on how bad they feel afterwards,” says Chun.

About the authors

Manoj Thomas portrait
Manoj Thomas

Manoj Thomas, Nakashimato Professor and associate professor of marketing at Johnson, is a behavioral scientist who trains executives and MBA students to use behavioral science for smarter marketing decisions. An expert on behavioral pricing, he has identified several interesting psychological effects that provide insights into how consumers evaluate prices and make purchase decisions.

Helen Chun portrait
Helen Chun

Helen Chun is an associate professor of services marketing at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration. Her research focuses on managing and enhancing consumer experience in the service setting with particular interests in the customer experience design, the role of emotions in consumer experience, branding, and prosocial and sustainability-related marketing issues.

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