Why Politicians Avoid Regret at All Costs - and Can't Make Peace

What makes people, and politicians in particular, prefer stasis to action – even if the ensuing change could improve their situation? Behavioral economics has several theories.

Israel's Gal Fridman kisses his Gold medal after the Men's Mistral windsurfer sailing event at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, Wednesday Aug. 25, 2004.
Israel's Gal Fridman kisses his Gold medal after the Men's Mistral windsurfer sailing event at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, Wednesday Aug. 25, 2004. AP

What causes political stasis? If we examine the question from the point of view of behavioral economics, two main principles come to mind – loss aversion and regret.

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Loss aversion is based on emphasizing what can be lost instead of what can be gained. In other words, we look at the current situation and say: If we take a risk (of course, with peace there is no such thing as zero risk), then there’s a chance we’ll lose and a chance we’ll gain. The problem is that we focus to a much larger degree on the potential loss. We spend more time imagining the potential bad outcomes and think how negative and terrible life and our future will be. In contrast, we don’t focus and concentrate on the potential for positive outcomes. As a consequence, loss aversion often leads us to refrain from doing something that could lead to a loss, even if the potential of gain is much larger.

But loss aversion is not the only contributor to political stasis – it is also joined by regret. An experiment conducted at Cornell University examined the issue of regret among athletes who won Olympic medals. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that gold medalists were happiest. But, somewhat unexpectedly, silver medalists were found to be the least happy – less happy than bronze medalists. How come? Because those who take the silver think to themselves: I’ve been training all these years and I only came in second; I was so close to first place but I didn’t win. These kinds of thoughts are part of what is known as counterfactual thinking. Winning the gold for the silver medalists did not actually exist, but they can easily imagine it; they compare themselves to that other, imaginary, state and in contrast they feel disappointed.

And what about the bronze medalists? What sort of thoughts about an alternate reality do they have? What do they imagine could have been different? Well, they say to themselves: Look at all the people that did not win anything, I could have very easily been one of them. And compared to the possibility of coming away empty-handed, the bronze medal certainly makes them feel good.

Regretting an action

Think about another example where we can imagine that taking a different path would have led to an alternate reality: Let’s say we’re either two minutes late for a flight, or two hours late for the same flight. In which situation will we feel worse? Obviously, when we miss the flight by just two minutes. Why? Because when we’re only two minutes late, we can more easily imagine how things could have been different, what could have happened if only… It’s much easier for us to imagine how we could have arrived on time than it would if we were two hours late. When it’s easy for us to imagine how we could have made the flight on time, we feel worse about missing it. In contrast, if we are late by two hours, it is harder to imagine the alternative reality (the one in which we made the flight). We don’t compare our situation to the one in which we made it, and as a consequence we are not as miserable.

Dan Ariely
Dan Keinan

Regret has another nuance – it mainly occurs when we do something, when we take action. When we don’t do anything, when we don’t even try, then there’s a much reduced tendency to experience regret. If we do something and it turns out badly for us, we tend to compare this to an imaginary situation in which we didn’t do anything – and this makes us feel bad. But if we don’t do anything, it’s hard for us to imagine the other situation in which we did something, and so there is much less room for regret, even if the current state of affairs is not good.

Let’s say we take the same route home from work every day. One day, while following the usual route, a tree suddenly falls and wrecks the car. Naturally, we feel bad about it. But not as bad as if we’d opted to take a different route that day. If we decided to try a shortcut that day, and then the tree fell on our car, we’d probably ask ourselves why we did that, why we didn’t take the usual route.

This idea that we feel more regret over things we did than over things we didn’t do is also referred to as the action inaction bias – sure, it is also possible to regret inaction, but the regret that comes with inaction will be less intense than regret over action. Why? Because once we’ve done something, we can go back in our memory to the moment we made the decision, realize very clearly that if we hadn’t done anything, we wouldn’t be in our current predicament, beat ourselves over the head and ask ourselves, “Why did I do it?”

Another example: We’re about to rent a car, and the rental agency offers us expensive insurance that will cover us in case of an accident – but we have to decide about taking this insurance right at this moment. Usually at that moment we imagine how we’d feel in the future if, god forbid, we had an accident and hadn’t purchased the insurance when we had the chance. We imagine how bad and stupid we would feel about rejecting the insurance, and this makes us much more likely to get expensive insurance. We’re not only buying it to protect ourselves from the financial consequences of an accident, but to protect ourselves from a sense of regret.

Political decisions

Loss aversion, regret and the action inaction bias often lead us to avoid taking actions we might regret. They influence decisions that are much more consequential than car insurance, and they influence the decisions we make for ourselves and those we make for others, including political decisions. When it comes to politics, here too it is more difficult to regret an action that was not taken than an action that was. For instance, if we did not make peace with our enemies today, it will be harder for us to regret that than if we did make peace today. Because if we made peace, we could always go back to the day when we made peace and think to ourselves that our decision on that day was a mistake. We’d ask ourselves why we didn’t see the writing on the wall, and why we decided to make peace. But if we didn’t make peace on February 23, then no one will be able to say: Damn, we should have made peace on February 23, but we didn’t.

Another way to look at the role of the action inaction bias in the political stasis is to pose the peace question in a way that does not allow for this asymmetry: Make peace now, or don’t make peace for the next 25 years – as if there is only a temporary window of opportunity in which to make peace, and if peace is not made within that window, then the next opportunity will not come our way for another 25 years, and so on.

Stating the question in this way changes the way we look at inaction. Now the decision is no longer a comparison of “Not today” versus “Yes today,” but “Yes now” versus “Not for a very long time.” This makes the inaction decision more symmetrical with the action decision (yes), and it enables us to also consider regret for our inaction, our “No” decision. In the current Middle East reality, ostensibly it’s not a sweeping “No” to peace that is being said, but just “Not right now.” But if the only two possibilities were “Yes now” or “Not for a very long time,” maybe we would look at the question differently. Deciding “Not to promote peace today” and for many days ends up being the same as deciding not to engage in peace; it just doesn’t feel the same, because we are not actively rejecting peace.

I believe that politicians, like the rest of us, are motivated by loss aversion. They are motivated by a focus on the negative, perhaps even more so than ordinary citizens who are not elected officials, because they worry they will be blamed by the public for every decision they make. Politicians are also motivated by the need to “cover their ass,” as the saying goes. They don’t want to regret anything, because regret could get people to blame them and it could cost them votes. Therefore, for politicians, the desire to avoid the unpleasant feeling of personal regret is compounded by public opinion and electoral anxiety. Loss aversion, regret and the action inaction bias together have an especially strong impact on politicians’ decision making. All of which makes it very hard to make any moves in the direction of peace, and at the same time makes stasis seem even more appealing.

This analysis is, frankly, sad. Very sad, in fact. And it’s even sadder in light of the recent violent events in Israel – which, I suspect, only causes politicians on both sides to fear the potential downside of peace even more, while at the same time making the potential regret even sharper.

The writer is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and the author of “Predictably Irrational,” “The Upside of Irrationality,” “The Honest Truth about Dishonesty” and “Irrationally Yours.”