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More regret virtue than vice over long term, research indicates

By Lisa Anderson
Tribune national correspondent
Published July 21, 2006, 5:47 PM CDT

NEW YORK -- "Regrets, I've had a few," crooned Frank Sinatra in his signature, taking-stock-of-life ballad "My Way." He didn't give details, but new research indicates that, over time, one is likelier to have greater regrets about choosing virtue than lingering guilt over indulging vice.

Yes, you read that correctly.

In the short term, vice is regretted more than virtue. But in the long run, people tend less to regret guilty pleasures taken than those virtuously forsaken, according to a study of Americans by Ran Kivetz, an associate professor of business, and doctoral candidate Anat Keinan , both at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business.

"We really do believe that in day-to-day self-control dilemmas, people are better off choosing to indulge," said Kivetz, who has researched attitudes toward vice and virtue for a decade.

Doubtless appalling to some and delightful to others, the findings may have particular resonance for Baby Boomers, the first of whom turned 60 this year, an age at which some begin assessing their lives.

Slated for publication in the September issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, "Repenting Hyperopia: An Analysis of Self-Control Regrets" is among the first research papers to compare "indulgence regret" with "self-control regret," according to its authors.

They write, "While yielding to temptation can certainly be harmful, this article argues that over-control and excessive farsightedness [hyperopia] can also have negative long-term consequences."

They are not talking about the Seven Deadly Sins, Kivetz said. "There are catastrophic self-control failures. We're not talking about them. Such as, you drive recklessly if you're late or you drink if you know you're an alcoholic or eating that chocolate cake if you know that you're obese. Those are cases where indulging may have a catastrophic outcome," Kivetz said.

"Most of our decisions in life, on a day-to-day level, are not these kinds of decisions," he said, but rather self-control dilemmas in which the "right" answer is not always clear— such as working versus going to the movies, eating chocolate cake versus fruit salad or taking a vacation versus saving money.

The paper presents three different studies with three different groups of American participants. In the first, people were asked to recall regrets about work versus pleasure. The second examines regrets experienced by university students about recent and past winter breaks, and regrets by alumni from the same school reflecting on a winter break 40 years ago. In the final study, participants had to imagine choosing between a three-layer chocolate cake and a low-calorie fruit salad and to describe what they thought they would feel about their choice one day or 10 years into the future.

Results in all three cases, the paper said, "indicate that consumers repent hyperopia in the long-run, when the effect of indulgence guilt is diminished and feelings of missing out on the pleasures of life are stronger."

Peter Whybrow, a psychiatrist and director of the Jane and Terry Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, considers Kivetz's conclusions too broad and his treatment of the consequences of over-indulgence too narrow, particularly in a society where self-interest tips the scales.

"The real problem we have to understand socially and economically is: How does one manage in a society where there is extraordinary choice and the natural inclination of the individual is to the hedonistic," said Whybrow, who examined American materialism and over-consumption in his 2005 book, "American Mania: When More Is Not Enough."

Kivetz argues that the over-emphasis on virtue and prudence in American culture contributes to the impulse toward over-indulgence.

"I'm not saying, 'OK, be decadent' … but balance is important," he said. "I think people should strive to have a little more balance, and balance also means enjoying life more."

The sense of missing out can be powerful both as an engine for regret and a tool for marketing, said Richard Feinberg, a professor of consumer science and retailing and the director of the Center for Customer-Driven Quality at Indiana's Purdue University.

"I think it speaks very directly to the issue of guilt. I'll give you an example. I like the Tour de France. Trek Bicycles has a contest and you can win stuff. I have a very old bicycle, so I've been playing their game," said Feinberg, 56, who won a power bar and a key chain.

"I went to collect my bounty, and there was a $700 Trek bicycle that was calling my name," he said, noting he can afford the bike but would hesitate about telling his wife that he bought it. "I'm guilty about paying the price, about knowing how hard I work for the money we have, about how much she wants to fix the house and the vacation we didn't take this year because we're saving money for something else."

However, he said, there might have been a different outcome had the sales clerk been equipped with Kivetz's research.

"I think what the salesperson could have said to me is that it may seem like a lot of money now, but, three years from now, all the things you'll be able to do with this bicycle will outweigh the price. I might have said OK.

"Instead, what did the salesperson say? 'Here's a Trek bike for $700. Isn't it pretty,'" he said.

Of course, the ideal situation is one in which a person can indulge a relative vice as a reward for choosing a relative virtue.

That's where Kivetz's research has helped Ron Gonen, chief executive of Philadelphia's RecycleBank, which rewards households for the amount of plastic, paper, glass, metal and other waste they recycle with "dollars" to redeem at participating stores ranging from Starbuck's to ShopRite.

RecycleBank, 10 percent of which is owned by Columbia University, sought more effective incentives for people to recycle, said Gonen, 31. He said Kivetz suggested they also offer more indulgent prizes, such as iPods. Kivetz's research indicated that even if certain people can afford an iPod, they feel guilty about buying one outright. However, rich or poor, people feel differently if they "earn" it through hard work or by doing something virtuous.

"It's more OK with the person's conscience because they say, 'Hey, I deserve it because I did something good,'" said Gonen, who is implementing the new incentive strategy.

Judy Sierant, a production editor for a trade journal, said she can attest that choosing to "do the right thing" instead of choosing the more pleasurable alternative sometimes can leave a lingering sense of missing out in life.

"The main regret I have is that I never really went into a career I wanted. I always wanted to be an archeologist. But my parents talked me out of it because they said it was a rich man's hobby and I'd never be able to make a living. So, I do regret that," said Sierant, 53, with a rueful smile.

Guido Alvarez was not surprised by Kivetz's conclusions. As for regrets, at 83, the retired crystal and china wholesaler said, "If I have some, I don't remember."

Smoking a cigar in a Manhattan park on a recent afternoon, the silver-haired Cuban-American said what he does remember—and what he emphatically doesn't regret—is investing in all the wonderful trips he took over the years with his wife, who worked for American Airlines.

"Now, people are saving everything for when they retire. But, they don't realize that when they retire they can't do all the things that they want. You get old. You can't eat," he said, ticking off a litany of age-related infirmities.

"What I did, no one can take away from me. I did it at the right time and at the right moment," he said, with a broad grin. "Like Frank Sinatra, I did it my way."

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