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The goal of the current research was to investigate how counterfactual thinking may serve as an intervention tool in promoting academic success for engineering students in their first-year courses. Additionally, we pursued other exploratory analyses to investigate other dimensions that may correlate with academic success. The analyses presented explored the relationship between gender, regret, and academic performance. Despite significant increases in female enrollment levels in engineering programs, the gender gap is still significant. Women accounted for approximately 23% of first-year students who desire to major in engineering programs in 2014 in the U.S. (NSF, 2017), and the actual female enrollment levels in engineering programs have been from 17 to 22% between 2002 and 2016 (NSF, 2019). A better understanding of gender differences in early-career pathways will help develop a future intervention to encourage women to enter this field. The initial findings of the current research suggest a potential gender difference in the functionality of regret on academic performance in early engineering courses.
Regret is considered to be a functional emotion; despite being affectively negative, regret offers preparatory functions for future behaviors and helps people better understand themselves and the context of their aversive experiences (Saffrey, Summerville, & Roese, 2008). Regret is the emotion that arises from upward counterfactual thinking or imagining “what might have been” had one acted differently (Epstude & Roese, 2008). These thoughts involve the comparison between an actual past event and some better alternative. Regret is composed of affective and cognitive components, and each component is related to distinct consequences (Buchanan, Summerville, Lehmann, & Reb, 2016).
Counterfactual thinking is generally considered functional, since it offers a behavioral script for self-improvement (Roese, 1994). The negative affect aroused by counterfactuals can increase strategic planning and motivation to promote future improvement (Markman, McMullen, & Elizaga, 2008). However, these thoughts can also be dysfunctional. People are often unable to accurately identify the cause of negative events, and counterfactual thinking can lead to misattributions of blame (Sherman & McConnell, 1995; Smallman & Summerville, 2018). People also tend to mentally alter aspects of the situational context rather than their behaviors, which can interfere with the functionality of counterfactual thinking (Girotto, Ferrante, Pighin, & Gonzalez, 2007). Regarding academic performance, counterfactuals can act as excuses to improve self-esteem (McCrea, 2008) and create a false sense of competence (Petrocelli, Seta, Seta, & Prince, 2012). Consequently, counterfactuals may decrease motivation to improve academic performance.
There have been very few findings of gender differences in regret experiences, and any differences identified seem to be domain specific. In the domain of romantic relationships, women and men experience different patterns of action and inaction regrets (Roese et al., 2006). Men focus more on inaction regrets or regrets about things they could have done differently (rather than things they should not have done). In contrast, women’s romantic regrets are more evenly distributed between these two types of regrets. Other research has suggested a potential gender difference in the frequency of action versus inaction regrets, but these findings were inconclusive (Gilovich, Wang, Regan, & Nishina, 2003). The current findings offer preliminary evidence of another way regret may differ by gender.
As part of a larger longitudinal study, we collected data across 3 years from a separate sample each year. Every fall semester, we invited new participants to complete up to four surveys throughout the semester. Since these surveys were nearly duplicated across samples, we merged the data collected across the 3 years to have one large sample. Participants were first-year students at a mid-sized state university in the Midwest of the United States enrolled in calculus-based physics, calculus, or introductory computer science. These courses were identified as difficult entry level courses that were core to the Engineering curriculum. Participants were invited via email and completed all the surveys online. Of the 646 participants who responded at least one of our surveys, 427 (237 male and 190 female) students adequately provided their gender, first exam grade, and feelings of regret.
Participants provided informed consent and a FERPA release which provided us access to their academic record and final course grade. In the intake surveys, all participants provided their demographic information.
After the first exams had been returned, participants who had completed the intake survey were invited to the post-exam survey. They provided their grade on the first exam as a percentage (0-100) and then completed a measure of their feelings of regret. We used the Regret Elements Scale (RES; Buchanan et al., 2016) which assesses the affective and cognitive components of regret. Participants were asked to rate their current feelings of regret about the first exam. Five items measured the affective components of regret (e.g., “I feel like kicking myself.”) whereas the other five examined cognitive regret (e.g., “I should have behaved differently.”) using 7-point scales from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).
After final grades were submitted for the semester, we contacted the course instructors and asked them to provide course grades for participants who had signed a FERPA release. Letter grades were converted into numeric values on a 4-point scale.
We examined whether the functionality of regret on academic performance differs by gender. All values except gender were standardized. We regressed the course grade on the interaction of affective or cognitive regret ratings and gender while controlling for first exam grade.
The interaction of affective regret and gender (0 = female, 1 = male) was significantly, albeit marginally, impactful on course grade, β = -.13, S.E. = .07, p = .07, 95% C.I. = [-.26, .01]. This interaction implies that the effect of affective regret on course grade may be positive for women but negative for men. There was a significant main effect for gender, β = -.14, S.E. = .07, p = .045, 95% C.I. = [-.27, -.003], but not for affective regret, p = .32, which means that female students overall received better grades than male students above and beyond first exam performance. Further, among female students, affective regret had little but positive impact on their course grades, β = .05, S.E. = .05, p = .32, 95% C.I. = [-.05, .16], such that when female students’ affective regret was higher (+1 S.D.), their course grades were higher (M = 2.99) than when female students’ affective regret was lower (-1 S.D., M = 2.86). In contrast, among male students, affective regret had little but negative influence on their course grades, β = -.07, S.E. = .05, p = .17, 95% C.I. = [-.18, .03], such that when male students’ affective regret was higher (+1 S.D.), their grades were lower (M = 2.69) than when male students’ affective regret was lower (-1 S.D., M = 2.85). These outcomes indicate that male students are more susceptible to the negative consequences of affective regret relative to female students.
The effect of cognitive regret on course grade also differed by gender. The interaction of cognitive regret and gender changed course grade, β = -.17, S.E. = .07, p = .02, 95% C.I. = [-.30, -.03]. In other words, cognitive regret may improve performance for female students but decrease performance for male students. The main effects of gender, β = -.14, S.E. = .07, p = .048, 95% C.I. = [-.27, -.001], as well as cognitive regret, β = .11, S.E. = .06, p = .06, 95% C.I. = [-.003, .21], were significant. The main effect for gender indicates better overall performance of women in the course than men, and the main effect of cognitive regret demonstrates that cognitive regret positively impacts course grade for women (= 0) above and beyond first exam scores. In addition to the results of affective regret, the functionality of cognitive regret on academic performance appeared to differ by gender. Cognitive regret did make a difference for female students, β = .11, S.E. = .06, p = .06, 95% C.I. = [-.003, .21], such that the more female participants reported cognitive regret, the greater course grade they received (+1 S.D., M = 3.05; -1 S.D., M = 2.81). However, cognitive regret had insignificant, negative influence on course grade for male students, β = -.06, S.E. = .05, p = .23, 95% C.I. = [-.16, .04]. The more male students felt cognitive regret, the lower course grade they received (+1 S.D., M = 2.71; -1 S.D., M = 2.84). These findings suggest that female students experienced the functional consequences of regret in regards to academic performance, while male students were negatively impacted by the experience of regret.
The present research suggests that both affective and cognitive regret was functional for female students but dysfunctional for male students. Past research has shown some gender differences in types of regrets and regret intensity (e.g., Roese et al., 2006). In the current research, our exploratory analyses provide initial evidence that the functionality of regret may differ by gender.
Although empirical evidence suggests that women may react differently than men when feeling regret, by the nature of exploratory study, many questions still need to be answered. Future research should investigate if this finding is applicable to all students outside of engineering. As the present study focuses on first-year students’ academic success, conclusions made about gender differences in the functionality of regret more broadly should be approached with caution. Future research should examine if these gender differences exist beyond this sample.
Additionally, it is still unclear why regret appears to be functional for female but not male students in the current research. Regret is a negative emotion aroused by counterfactual thinking that typically motivates people to enhance future performance (Markman et al., 2008). One potential explanation for these findings is that women may have a better memory of their regret experiences and be more sensitive to regret compared to men. According to Bloise and Johnson (2007), women recall both neutral and emotional information more than men. They claim that this may be because women may experience higher emotional sensitivity. Thus, the functional effect of regret may have remained until the final exam (or lasted longer than male students) for female students. This explanation for the current results should be examined in future research. References
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Buchanan, J., Summerville, A., Lehmann, J., & Reb, J. (2016). The Regret Elements Scale: Distinguishing the affective and cognitive components of regret. Judgment and Decision Making, 11, 275-286.
Epstude, K., & Roese, N. J. (2008). The functional theory of counterfactual thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12(2), 168-192.
Gilovich, T., Wang, R. F., Regan, D., & Nishina, S. (2003). Regrets of action and inaction across cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 34(1), 61-71.
Girotto, V., Ferrante, D., Pighin, S., & Gonzalez, M. (2007). Postdecisional counterfactual thinking by actors and readers. Psychological Science, 18(6), 510-515.
Markman, K. D., McMullen, M. N., & Elizaga, R. A. (2008). Counterfactual thinking, persistence, and performance: A test of the reflection and evaluation model. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(2), 421-428.
McCrea, S. M. (2008). Self-handicapping, excuse making, and counterfactual thinking: Consequences for self-esteem and future motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 274-292.
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Petrocelli, J. V., Seta, C. E., Seta, J. J., & Prince, L. B. (2012). “If only I could stop generating counterfactual thoughts”: When counterfactual thinking interferes with academic performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 1117-1123.
Roese, N. J., Pennington, G. L., Coleman, J., Janicki, M., Li, N. P., & Kenrick, D. T. (2006). Sex differences in regret: All for love or some for lust? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(6), 770-780.
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Johnson, B. N., & Kim, W. J., & Blue, J., & Summerville, A., & Kirkmeyer, B. P. (2021, January), Gender Differences in the Functionality of Regret on Academic Performance Paper presented at 2021 CoNECD, Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day . https://strategy.asee.org/36092
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