Anticipatory regret, Bruce Springsteen, and me

A few weeks ago, I kinda, sorta, not really, almost caught a free Bruce Springsteen concert. Except Springsteen didn’t show because he was never supposed to perform in the first place. I spent five hours standing around, surrounded by drunken Duke undergrads (and carefully avoiding eye-contact with those whom I’d taught or mentored) for nothing, all because of anticipatory regret.

the desire to avoid eye contact was mutual

The desire to avoid eye contact was mutual

Let me explain. Every year, Duke undergrads celebrate their Last Day of Classes, or LDOC, with lots of partying and a free outdoor concert. Past LDOC performers have included Kanye West, B.O.B., Macklemore, and Kendrick Lamar. This year, the lineup was a bunch of artists that were not as famous (at least to me; I do not pretend to be even remotely cool about current music), leading students to wonder if the lineup was a ruse. Perhaps they had a secret, better headliner in reserve?

Here’s where Springsteen comes in. As LDOC drew near, rumors started circulating that Bruce Springsteen was going to give a surprise performance to close out LDOC. While this may sound like wild conjecture, let me present the following pieces of evidence.

  1. Springsteen’s daughter is a senior graduating from Duke this year.
  2. Springsteen was going to give a concert in nearby Raleigh the very next night and was not slated for an official performance the night of LDOC.
  3. The slogan for LDOC was “Saving the Best for Last”, and clearly Bruce Springsteen is the best!

Duke undergrads at LDOC. Photo from flickr user Theomania61

Before hearing these rumors, I had no intention of going to LDOC. Being surrounded by partying undergrads makes me feel tired and old and like I should be on the lookout for date rape. After I heard the Springsteen rumors, however, I couldn’t not go.

You see, if I didn’t go, and the rumors were true, I knew I would be devastated. I would forever kick myself about that time Bruce Springsteen surprised Duke with a free concert, and I didn’t go because I was a homebody who didn’t want to stay up past my bedtime.

In other words, I anticipated the regret that I would feel if I had passed on the possibility of seeing Springsteen and he had actually shown up (angry streaming tears face below). This regret would be more painful than the annoyed disappointment I’d feel if I went to LDOC and Springsteen didn’t show (upset tongue-out bunny below). After weighing those possible emotional outcomes, I chose to take a chance and go to LDOC to avoid an angry streaming tears situation.


Springsteen photo from Bill Ebbesen on Wikimedia commons. Rosa photo by Jeff MacInnes. Emoji by Flickr user Windkoh

Anticipatory regret is a powerful motivator, and it works best when you know you’ll find out what might have been had you made a different choice. The Dutch Postcode Lottery is a famous example. It randomly picks a street or neighborhood in the Netherlands, and if you live in that selected area, you win big Euros – IF you bought a lottery ticket.

Put yourself in Dutch clogs for a second. Imagine that you didn’t buy a postcode lottery ticket, and then your neighborhood got picked to win. How much regret would you feel, knowing that you missed out those winnings? That anticipatory regret would likely compel you to buy a postcode lottery ticket, just in case.

Photo from flickr user anonneymouse1

Photo from flickr user anonneymouse1

In U.S. lotteries, if you don’t buy a ticket, you’ll probably never know how close you came to hitting the big win, and you know that you’ll never know. No anticipatory regret in that case, so less impetus to purchase U.S. lottery tickets.

We often think of decision making as being driven by the emotions we experience while we’re trying to make up our minds. Anticipatory regret is a nice reminder that it’s not just the emotions that we feel in the moment – the emotions we think we might feel alter our decisions as well.

I’m still sad that I didn’t get to see Springsteen perform. But hey, Duke Commencement is this weekend. Maybe I’ll run into him around town while he’s here to watch his daughter graduate.

Marcel Zeelenberg (1999). Anticipated regret, expected feedback and behavioral decision making Journal of Behavioral Decision Making


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