Protected by uncertainty: an experimental investigation of the effects of uncertainty of negative outcomes on regret of actions vs. inactions

Andrei Corneliu Holman, Alexandra Vieriu


The present study focuses on the potential relationships between the uncertainty concerning the negative consequences of past decisions that come to be regretted and the current intensity of regret regarding these decisions, as well as to the perceived personal responsibility in determining those consequences. We also analyzed these relationships in the framework of the dichotomy opposing actions and inactions, which has been indicated by past research as relevant for the experience of regret. We conducted an experiment (N=300) in which participants were required to recall a decision from their past that they regret; the type of decision, i.e., action vs. inaction was manipulated, and we measured the perceived foreseeability or certainty of the negative consequences brought by the respective decision, the personal responsibility for the negative outcomes, and the intensity of regret. We expected uncertainty of consequences to be associated with lower responsibility and regret, which would highlight its role as a potential rationalization of past mistakes, by being invoked as a justification that would diminish one’s responsibility for that decision. Past research also suggests that inactions have a higher degree of perceived uncertainty concerning the consequences of one’s decisions than actions. Hence, we expected that the inactions recalled by our participants would be characterized by a higher uncertainty than actions, and that difference would further generate a lower personal responsibility and regret in the case of inactions. Results show that the uncertainty of the negative consequences of the regretted decisions is associated to lower personal responsibility for their occurrence, but only in the case of inactions. This suggests a psychological strategy of diminishing personal responsibility and thus rationalizing inactions with less foreseeable effects. No difference between recalled actions and inactions emerged in the uncertainty of their consequences, personal responsibility and regret intensity.

Regret, Uncertainty, Personal responsibility, Actions, Inactions

Alexandra Vieriu – Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iaşi, Romania, E-mail:
Andrei Corneliu Holman – Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iaşi, Romania

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