Predicting more and enjoying it less: How 'anticipated regret' takes the fun out

June 06, 2007

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Each year in March, roughly 30 million Americans print out NCAA basketball tournament brackets, spend days agonizing over their predictions and, when the research is finally done, wager some of their hard-earned money that they've made the right choices.


Then they settle in for the three-week bonanza that is March Madness.


The thing is, says Stephen Nowlis, it's an experience they probably don't enjoy.


"People are funny in the way they make decisions sometimes," says Nowlis, a professor of marketing at the W. P. Carey School. "Sometimes they aren't good at knowing what they're going to like."


That's what Nowlis found, at least, in a new study that revealed just how much we humans can be affected by emotional uncertainty -- uncertainty that arises when we make predictions about certain events. In the forthcoming study in the Journal of Consumer Research, Nowlis and his co-author, associate professor of marketing Naomi Mandel, found that when people make a prediction about an event -- whether it's the basketball games of March Madness, the singing showdown on "American Idol," or the all-or-nothing Super Bowl -- their enjoyment of that experience is inevitably lessened.


In other words, the researchers say, the very action that would seem to give viewers an actual stake in these experiences -- that is, having something to win (or lose) -- is also the very thing that makes the viewing experience uncomfortable and, even, unpleasant.


On its face, Nowlis admits the finding seems counterintuitive. And, sports betting is skyrocketing in popularity. Office pools -- once the realm of sports alone -- are now organized for everything from the Academy Awards to "Survivor," and the Internet is flooded with "spoiler message boards" that encourage users to make predictions on the outcomes of reality television series.


With the "prediction" business booming, Nowlis says, it would be natural to assume prediction-based marketing schemes would be a good thing for business, but the results of the study just don't bear that out.


"If you look for these sites -- there are tons of them out there," Nowlis says. "They're all about, 'Who's going to win next week? Who's the favorite?' Well, we wondered, 'If you make these kind of predictions, will you enjoy the experience more or less?' Intuitively, you would think you'd enjoy it more. But we found you enjoy it less."


Fittingly, the impetus for the study came from reality TV.



Troubled waters in the office pool


Mandel and Nowlis found themselves competing in an office pool, about CBS's ever-popular "Survivor," in which participants tried their hand at guessing which of the stranded contestants would make the "Final Four" and be the ultimate winner.


It didn't take long for Mandel and Nowlis to notice that, for some in the group, watching the show after making their predictions wasn't all that fun.


"That's how we got the idea for the study," Nowlis says. "If you study consumer behavior, you end up studying yourself a lot. And as the show went on, we began to notice, 'Hey -- that's funny. Why are different people in the pool having different reactions? Why did I find watching the show stressful but others didn't?'"


To find out, Mandel and Nowlis designed a series of different experiments, all constructed in such a way to give the researchers a peek into how viewers would react, on an emotional level, to situations in which they were asked to make a prediction -- or not -- about the outcome of various scenarios.


In one experiment, the researchers rounded up 91 undergraduates to watch a clip from the reality show, "The Weakest Link," and then asked some of them to predict the winner after watching just the first segment of the show -- a segment that offered scant clues to the eventual winners. Other participants, meanwhile, were simply asked to watch the show, no predictions necessary.


After the watching was over, the researchers asked all of the participants to rate their level of enjoyment in watching the show.


In the first of what would prove to be a series of conclusive findings, the researchers found the participants who were asked to make a prediction about the "Weakest Link" winner "demonstrated a significantly lower level of enjoyment" than those who simply watched the show.



The fear factor


In a follow-up, Mandel and Nowlis asked more than 250 participants to make predictions on the outcome of an episode of another reality show -- NBC's over-the-top "Fear Factor."


This time, participants were asked to watch a clip in which "Fear Factor" contestants were asked to swing, from a trapeze-like setup, from one platform to two others. After the tape began to roll, the person leading the experiment stopped it and asked some participants to predict how long the contestant they had just seen would last before falling out of the game. And, as with the first experiment, a control group was then asked to simply watch the show, without having to make any predictions.


Once again, all participants were asked afterward how much they enjoyed watching the show.


The results were more of the same: Those who were forced to make predictions, the study authors wrote, "enjoyed the show less and were less likely to want to keep watching than participants who did not make predictions."


"The whole question here was, 'If you predict who's going to win a tournament, or who's going to win 'Survivor,' would that make you enjoy the experience more or less?'" Nowlis says. "You would think that because all of the companies are [supporting marketing strategies that leverage predictions] that making prediction would make people like it more -- I mean, you have to figure that's why people do these things. But we came up with something different. People seem to enjoy it less."


But why?


Simple, says Nowlis. Nobody likes to be wrong.


But once a person has boldly predicted the outcome of an event, they've set themselves up for just that possibility. The event begins and the predictor has to worry whether he'll be proven right or made to look like a fool.


"When people make these predictions, they have this little sliver of doubt -- 'What if I'm wrong?,'" Nowlis says. "They have mixed emotions. 'Survivor' is 16 weeks long. Every week you get some feedback about whether you were right or wrong in your predictions, and you want to be correct for 16 weeks. But then in week 3 something happens and you go, 'Oh no, one of my people got dropped -- what about next week?'"



Anticipating regret


The researchers dubbed this emotion "anticipated regret." And they say this anticipated regret may actually be a more powerful downer than actual regret. In other words, the anxiety caused by the concern that one might lose may be more powerful than the sting of actually losing.


All of which leaves the question: If making predictions about an event can make us so miserable, why do so many of us continue to do it?


Nowlis can only guess, but he says it's possible that all those emotions that leave us so exhausted and unhappy during the tensest moments of the "Survivor" finale, or the nail biting fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, are all but forgotten once those events are over.


So when the next opportunity comes up to place a bet, Nowlis says, we jump at it. And get uncomfortable all over again.


"I think what people tend to remember more is just the fun parts," Nowlis jokes. "They forget about how they were sweating through the 9th inning and thinking they might lose. They forget worrying about the jerk down the hall, whose team always wins and you'd have to hear about if he won again. You just kind of end up remembering the ending -- the fun part."



Bottom Line:


  • A new study finds that when people make predictions about certain events, enjoyment in watching those events decreases.
  • In one experiment, viewers of a reality TV show who were asked to make a prediction about the outcome of the show enjoyed watching it less and were less likely to want to keep watching the show than viewers who were not asked to make a prediction.
  • People who make predictions likely enjoy watching events less because of "anticipated regret" -- the fear that they may be proven wrong.
  • "Anticipated regret," the study concludes, may be a more powerful downer than actual regret. The fear of losing, in other words, is worse than losing itself.