The role of Anticipated Regret in behavioural safety

20 October, 2021
Anticipated regret

We had the absolute privilege recently of talking with Mark Houghton, co-founder of I-Performance Ltd, about the concept of Anticipated Regret, how it impacts on our decision making, and how it can be used to unlock people’s potential. We were discussing this in the context of behavioural safety but Anticipated Regret fashions our perception of and reaction to almost everything around us. We very much appreciate Mark’s input below in explaining just what Anticipated Regret means and how we can all make it work to our advantage.

Introducing I-Performance

First of all, a brief introduction to I-Performance and what they do. In short, they explore the minds of brilliant people and show others the possibilities that can result from adopting similar ways of perceiving, thinking, feeling and behaving. Put simply, I-Performance use emerging insights from the world of social neuroscience, plus real-world experience, to explore people’s potential. This is based on the belief that there is more to people than they know and that everyone (yes, everyone) has the potential to go beyond expectations. As a company, they reject the idea that talent is innate. Instead, they repeatedly demonstrate that it is learned, often largely by chance, and that small actions at the right time and in the right place can have profound effects. So, if we could all learn to think the way brilliant people do, we could achieve genuine transformational change.

What is Anticipated Regret?

Regret is the negative emotion we experience when we look back and realise we made the wrong decision or we could have made a better one. We feel it when the outcome of a non-chosen alternative is better than the outcome achieved by our chosen decision. It is useful in that it can help us to correct mistakes and make better decisions in the future. Anticipated Regret is the feeling we experience of the regret we think we might feel in the future if we failed to take effective action and the worst were to happen. It is commonly experienced when considering risks and can lead to us become risk averse.

There are often advantages to taking a risk. For instance, we save time by stepping over the Lego pieces left on the floor. Unfortunately, when we forget they are there and step on one, we quickly regret not having picked them up. Anticipated Regret is imagining experiencing that pain and taking action to avoid the chance of actually experiencing it.

Exceptional safety leaders

There are high fliers in every field of human endeavour – a handful of people who consistently achieve truly outstanding results. Safety performance is no exception. High risk industries in particular have seen tremendous improvements in safety through the implementation of safety culture, behaviour and management programmes. Still, there remain notable outliers, even in high reliability organisations (HROs).

I-Performance’s unique application of advances in cognitive science enables them to explore the gifts and talents that drive these exceptional people, forming the basis of their elite performance. The company recently undertook a unique study within a global oil and gas company, using these scientific advances to explore how successful individuals are able to consistently and reliably achieve exceptional levels of safety performance, higher levels of productivity and increased employee engagement.

Although the company had the highest levels of safety maturity, additional initiatives were only resulting in temporary improvements. They had a high level of safety performance but had plateaued. The organisation had already identified a handful of leaders who consistently outperformed everyone else. They concluded that there was some undiscovered ingredient enabling these leaders to achieve exceptional results. But what?

The magic ingredient

Previous research into HROs has provided valuable descriptions of what to do, what to pay attention to and what to think in order to improve safety. AR-based safety performance works alongside these initiatives but the critical difference is a cognitive approach – the how.

  • How to be motivated to pay attention to small anomalies
  • How to avoid normalisation of unsafe practices
  • How to be vigilant
  • How to sustain that vigilance

Anticipated Regret is a different way of thinking

Exceptional leaders display significant differences in perception, understanding, ways of thinking and patterns of behaviour that explain their exceptional results. They use Anticipated Regret to drive active vigilance and intervention. When a risk is identified, these outliers go through an accurate mental process, simulating the possible worst-case outcomes of various decisions, including inaction. This would include the full-life consequences for all individuals who could be impacted by the decision. These mental simulations lead to anticipated experiences of regret for each possible worst-case scenario. Ensuring such regret is never experienced motivates vigilance and intervention. Importantly, these Anticipated Regrets reinforce the understanding that an unaddressed risk will eventually lead to an incident, and that minor unaddressed risks will lead to significant, life-impacting consequences.

Appropriate intervention

In addition to creating the emotion of Anticipated Regret, the outliers use these mental simulations to determine the best course of action and the appropriate interventions. This has three benefits:

  • Mental simulations are used to assess actions, ensuring success without incurring any secondary risks
  • The mind rehearses the action, allowing the person to notice and address unexpected or emerging risks
  • They turn a negative into a positive – the satisfaction of overcoming the Anticipated Regret and the positive affect of imagining people conducting their daily activities safely and free from harm

Exceptional safety leaders go through these accurate mental processes intuitively, establishing working practices that centre on both experiencing and overcoming Anticipated Regret. The more often we allow ourselves to experience Anticipated Regret and learn how to deal with it, the more accurate our mental simulations and our safety performance become.

The Anticipated Regret bug

bouncy castle

Photo taken by the lead researcher

“It was my daughter’s birthday. It’s a tradition to have a bouncy castle. This year was different, I found myself searching the loft for some carpet offcut to cover the power cable. I kept thinking, what if one of her friends runs round the side, trips and breaks an arm! I had to take a picture because I was laughing so much at how strongly I felt the need to find and place the carpet over the cable. I had been infected by the Anticipated Regret bug.”


If you want to explore how your own organisation’s exceptional performers achieve their results, and how to pass on these gifts to the wider organisation, or learn how to implement Anticipated-Regret-based safety in your organisation.

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