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Despite being implicated in a wide range of psychological and behavioral phenomena, relief remains poorly understood from the perspective of psychological science. What complicates the study of relief is that people seem to use the term to describe an emotion that occurs in two distinct situations: when an unpleasant episode is over, or upon realizing that an outcome could have been worse. This study constitutes a detailed empirical investigation of people’s reports of everyday episodes of relief. A set of four studies collected a large corpus (N = 1835) of first-person reports of real-life episodes of relief and examined people’s judgments about the antecedents of relief, its relation to counterfactual thoughts, and its subsequent effects on decision making. Some participants described relief experiences that had either purely temporal or purely counterfactual precursors. Nevertheless, the findings indicated that the prototypical instance of relief appears to be one in which both these elements are present. The results also suggest that, although relief is frequently experienced in situations in which people are not responsible for the relief-inducing event, nevertheless they typically report that the experience had a positive impact on subsequent decision making.
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Running head: RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 1
Relief in Everyday Life
Agnieszka J. Graham1, Teresa McCormack1, Sara Lorimer1, Christoph Hoerl3, Sarah R.
Beck2, Matthew Johnston1, & Aidan Feeney1
1Queen’s University Belfast
2University of Birmingham
3University of Warwick
©2022, American Psychological Association. This paper is not the copy of record and may
not exactly replicate the final, authoritative version of the article. Please do not copy or cite
without authors’ permission. The final article will be available, upon publication, via its
DOI: 10.1037/emo0001191
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 2
Author Note
This work was funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2018-019: The Nature and
Function of Relief). Materials, data, and analysis code are available on the Open Science
Framework (https://osf.io/dz6f4/). The authors thank Dr Ruth Lee, Dr Nicole Andelic, Dr
Robyn McCue, Dr Patrick O’Connor, and Dr Bethany Corbett for their help with data
collection. The authors declare no conflict of interest. Agnieszka J. Graham previously
published under the name Agnieszka J. Jaroslawska.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Agnieszka J. Graham,
School of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, UK, BT7 1NN. E-mail:
agnieszka.graham@qub.ac.uk
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 3
Abstract
Despite being implicated in a wide range of psychological and behavioral phenomena, relief
remains poorly understood from the perspective of psychological science. What complicates
the study of relief is that people seem to use the term to describe an emotion that occurs in
two distinct situations: when an unpleasant episode is over, or upon realizing that an
outcome could have been worse. This study constitutes a detailed empirical investigation of
people’s reports of everyday episodes of relief. A set of four studies collected a large corpus
(N = 1835) of first-person reports of real-life episodes of relief and examined people’s
judgments about the antecedents of relief, its relation to counterfactual thoughts, and its
subsequent effects on decision making. Some participants described relief experiences that
had either purely temporal or purely counterfactual precursors. Nevertheless, the findings
indicated that the prototypical instance of relief appears to be one in which both these
elements are present. The results also suggest that, although relief is frequently experienced
in situations in which people are not responsible for the relief-inducing event, nevertheless
they typically report that the experience had a positive impact on subsequent decision
making.
Keywords: Relief; Counterfactual Emotions; Counterfactual Thinking; Temporal
Cognition; Decision Making
Word count: 16800 (main body)
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 4
Relief in Everyday Life
Relief is a common and readily identified emotional experience; indeed, some theoretical
perspectives take relief to be a ‘basic’ positive emotion (e.g., Levenson, 2011). Yet, despite
having featured in theorizing about phenomena as diverse as self-harming (e.g., Chapman et
al., 2006; Favazza, 1998; Franklin et al., 2013), addiction (e.g., Bottorff et al., 2009; Shead &
Hodgins, 2009), phobia (e.g., Lohr et al., 2007), and educational motivation (e.g., Pekrun et
al., 2014), relief has been understudied empirically. What makes this relative lack of research
on relief all the more surprising is that, in what there is of such research, relief is often
conceived of as the antonym of regret (e.g., Coricelli et al., 2007; Guerini et al., 2020; Liu et
al., 2016) an emotion that, by contrast, has already attracted a large amount of attention
in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics, leading to the development of
detailed theoretical frameworks (e.g., Davison & Feeney, 2008; Gilovich & Medvec, 1995;
Roese & Summerville, 2005; Zeelenberg et al., 2000; Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2007).
It is primarily in the context of decision making research that relief has been
conceptualized as the antonym of regret, although it has also been conceived of this way by
some developmental psychologists (Weisberg & Beck, 2010, 2012). For example, Guttentag
and Ferrell (2004, p. 764) describe relief as follows: “Closely related to regret is relief, an
emotion that is experienced in situations in which (a) the actual outcome of a course of
action is positive or neutral and (b) a possible alternative decision would have resulted in a
more negative outcome. When conceived of in this way, relief is considered to be a
counterfactual emotion, i.e., an emotion that is grounded in a comparison between an actual
outcome and how things might have turned out differently. Counterfactual thoughts can
simulate a better alternative (termed upward counterfactuals) or a worse alternative [termed
downward counterfactuals; Markman et al. (1993)]. On this picture, relief is considered to be
the antonym of regret, because while regret is an emotional consequence of comparing the
present situation to a better alternative, relief is thought to occur when one reflects on how
things might have turned out worse. So, for example, one may feel relieved that one
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 5
managed to catch the last train home (actual outcome), because otherwise one would have
had to pay for an expensive taxi (counterfactual outcome).
Conceived of like this, the standard experimental measures of relief have been tasks in
which participants report feeling happier after considering a downward counterfactual.
Commonly used tasks are ones in which people must choose between two possible gambles
and subsequently find out not just what they have won/lost but what they would have
won/lost if they had chosen differently (i.e., the counterfactual outcome). This approach has
proved fruitful for decision making researchers and has been used frequently in
neuropsychology (e.g., Burnett et al., 2010; Coricelli et al., 2007; Larquet et al., 2010; Liu et
al., 2016).
However, on reflection, it is not obvious that the emotion measured in this way maps
neatly onto what people consider to be relief. An important reason why such a mapping is
not straightforward is because, in everyday life, people seem to use the term ‘relief’ to refer
to an emotion that can occur in two quite different contexts. People do talk about being
relieved when they realize that an outcome could have been worse if things had taken
another turn (e.g., if they had missed the last train). But, on the face of it, people also
describe their emotion as relief when a painful, stressful, or otherwise unpleasant episode has
ended (e.g., relieved that a dental procedure has finished). In this case, it seems to be the
ending of a negative experience, rather than the avoiding of such an experience, that is the
antecedent of relief. This raises the issue of whether relief is in fact a unitary emotion. And,
as we shall discuss below, distinctions between these kinds of antecedents also feature
prominently in some theoretical claims about approaches to relief (Deutsch et al., 2015;
Sweeny & Vohs, 2012).
The aim of this paper is to examine whether people do indeed describe their emotional
experience as relief in these distinct contexts, and also whether the characteristics of the
emotional experiences they describe under these two contexts are different or similar. We do
this by looking in detail at examples participants provided of episodes of relief in everyday
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 6
life and their associated judgments about these episodes, including their judgments about
the antecedents of their experiences. As should be clear from our methodology, our primary
concern is understanding and characterizing the emotional experience that people describe as
relief. Although there are a number of influential survey-type studies of everyday experiences
of regret (e.g., Bonnefon & Zhang, 2008; Feeney et al., 2005; Gilovich & Medvec, 1994; Roese
& Summerville, 2005; Zeelenberg, Van Dijk, Van der Pligt, et al., 1998), there has been no
equivalent study of everyday experiences of relief. However, it is clear that the studies of
everyday experiences of regret have had a considerable impact on how this emotion is
conceived of, both in terms of understanding when and why regret is usually experienced
(Gilovich & Medvec, 1995), and in characterizing its typical function and relation to
cognitive processes (e.g., Inman & Zeelenberg, 2002; Tsiros & Mittal, 2000; Zeelenberg et al.,
2002). This suggests that a careful study of self-reports of everyday experiences of relief may
similarly contribute to an understanding of this emotional experience.
Theoretical claims about relief
As we have pointed out, people seem to use the term ‘relief’ to refer to experiences that
have two different types of antecedents. Mirroring this, the idea that relief occurs in two
distinct types of situations has also featured in previous researchers’ theorizing about the
emotion, where this idea has typically been expressed in terms of a distinction between two
different ‘types’ of relief. In this section, we outline three related ways in which such a
distinction has been described.
(i) Near miss versus task completion relief. Sweeny and Vohs (2012) provide
an analysis of relief from a social psychology perspective, distinguishing between near-miss
relief, assumed to emerge following the narrow avoidance of an unpleasant experience (i.e., a
counterfactual negative state that was avoided), and task-completion relief, assumed to follow
the completion of an unpleasant or difficult task (i.e., an actual negative state that was
experienced during a task but has now concluded). Near-miss relief is thought to be
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 7
associated more strongly with downward counterfactual thinking, i.e., counterfactuals
comparing reality to a hypothetically worse outcome.
(ii) Counterfactual versus temporal relief. Hoerl (2015), in a philosophical
analysis of the emotion of relief, distinguishes between counterfactual and temporal instances
of relief, proposing that these relief types have different triggering conditions and functions.
His characterization of counterfactual relief is close to the way in which relief, in decision
making research (e.g., Coricelli et al., 2007; Habib et al., 2012), is viewed as the antonym of
regret, with the latter occurring when an actual outcome is worse than a counterfactual one
and the former occurring when the actual outcome is the better one. On this picture, there is
not necessarily any unpleasant experience that precedes relief when it has a counterfactual
precursor (e.g., being told at the checkout that you are buying your child the last of a
much-coveted toy before Christmas may result in relief but may not have been preceded by
any negative experience). Temporal relief, by contrast, is assumed to turn specifically on the
fact that an unpleasant episode (e.g., a painful medical procedure) has actually taken place,
but has now ended.
(iii) Prevention versus stopping relief. Deutsch et al.’s account (2015), which
takes theories of fear and conditioned learning as its springboard, describes relief to be an
emotion triggered by the “absence of expected or previously experienced” negative
stimulation [p. 2; see also Leknes et al. (2011); Riebe et al. (2012)]. In this analysis, either
the threat or actual experience of negative stimulation is thought to initially lead to negative
affect; this then subsequently shifts to positive affect, through an opponent process
mechanism, when a safety signal is detected (Solomon, 1980). Although there are
commonalities in the general process giving rise to relief, according to this account, it
nevertheless distinguishes between prevention and stopping relief, with prevention relief
occurring when anticipated or expected negative stimulation does not occur, and stopping
relief occurring after the offset of painful or unpleasant stimulation. On this picture,
prevention relief always results specifically from the cessation of fear (i.e., fear that
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 8
something negative will occur, something that in fact does not come to pass), whereas
stopping relief can occur following any type of negative experience (e.g., pain or shame).
Coming from quite different disciplinary perspectives, all three of these accounts make
related distinctions between two separate types of circumstances in which relief occurs:
Roughly speaking, all three distinguish between relief experienced in circumstances in which
a worse outcome that could have occurred did not in fact occur, and relief experienced in
circumstances in which something unpleasant comes to an end. Our aim in this paper is to
investigate to what extent a distinction of this type is also present in people’s descriptions of
everyday episodes of relief, taking these theoretical accounts to provide a useful starting
point in framing the relevant empirical questions.
Key empirical questions
(a) How should we characterize the antecedents of relief?
At the heart of Deutsch et al.’s (2015) framework is the idea that both of what they
call prevention and stopping relief are similar in that they are necessarily preceded by a
period of negative affect and result via opponent processes from the removal of any threat on
the detection of a safety signal. Stopping relief can be seen as an example of relief in which
there is a ‘purely’ temporal precursor. In the case of prevention relief, the initial period of
negative experience takes the form of fear or anxiety about a possible negative outcome,
which then in fact does not occur. Thus, according to Deutsch et al. (2015), although the
exact triggering conditions for the two types of relief are distinct, they share a fundamental
similarity in terms of underpinning mechanisms. Such a claim has the advantage of helping
make sense of why people use the same term to refer to both types of relief despite somewhat
different triggering conditions. Note, though, that it also makes the empirical prediction that
prevention relief is invariably preceded by a period of negative affect (specifically fear or
anxiety).
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 9
As it stands, Hoerl’s (2015) distinction between temporal and counterfactual relief does
not make any assumptions about the similarity of the mechanisms underpinning these types
of relief. Of note, though, is that it seems to at least leave open the possibility that what he
calls counterfactual relief can occur without any initial fear or anxiety that subsequently is
replaced by relief. For example, consider a situation in which someone has a ticket for a flight
but changes their ticket to catch a later plane. They then discover that the earlier flight has
crashed killing all on board. It seems at least possible that such a person might feel what
Hoerl (2015) terms counterfactual relief, even though there is no period in which they
experience fear or anxiety that dissipates on realizing that they are safe. However, existing
research has not addressed whether people would indeed describe their experience under such
circumstances as relief, i.e., when there is a ‘purely’ counterfactual precursor. We examined
this question using a variety of methods for eliciting descriptions of relief experiences.
(b) Are ‘hybrid’ antecedents of relief experiences prototypical? Is the
experience of relief more intense or memorable under such circumstances?
The three accounts that we have outlined all leave open the possibility there will be
‘hybrid’ instances of relief experiences that have both temporal and counterfactual
antecedents. Indeed, it seems plausible that people may frequently feel both glad to have
avoided a negative outcome (e.g., that they have passed rather than failed an exam) and also
glad that an unpleasant experience is over (e.g., that a stressful period of preparing for and
sitting the exam is over). Such hybrid cases may even be the prototypical (i.e., the most
commonly reported) expression of relief, or it may be the case that experienced relief is
particularly intense or memorable under such circumstances. Speculatively, different types of
precursors might have additive effects on emotion intensity, in the sense that the experiencer
has more than one ‘reason’ for feeling relieved. Higher intensity could then lead to increased
memorability, in line with studies of autobiographical memory that have generally found that
emotional memories are easier to remember than unemotional memories (e.g., Talarico et al.,
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 10
2004).
As will be described below, in the current study, we examined people’s judgments
about the antecedents to everyday experiences of relief, and classified them as either ‘purely
temporal’, ‘purely counterfactual’, or ‘hybrid’ in nature in order to examine whether there
are indeed any single antecedent cases and also to examine the relative frequency of these
different antecedents, the salience in memory, and the level of intensity of the relief
experienced in each type of case. This allowed us to consider the prototypical circumstances
in which people report that relief occurs, and to explore whether hybrid antecedents are in
fact most common and/or result in more intense or memorable relief.
(c) What is the relation between relief and counterfactual thought?
All three of the accounts outlined above explicitly link relief with counterfactual
thought, and indeed Sweeny and Vohs (2012) also provide novel empirical evidence of an
association between the frequency of downward counterfactual thought and what they
describe as near-miss relief. An implication is that, on any of these approaches, in trying to
understand relief, it will be crucial to examine the relation between this emotion and
counterfactual thought. The same can be said about the way relief has been frequently
characterized in the decision-making literature as an emotion triggered by counterfactual
thought. Thus, in order to replicate and extend the findings of Sweeny and Vohs (2012) to a
novel paradigm, we asked people to report on whether their experiences of relief were
accompanied by downward counterfactual thoughts and by upward counterfactual thoughts.
We were particularly interested in whether relief that people reported experiencing on
realizing that things could have been worse was more strongly associated with downward
counterfactual thinking than relief people reported experiencing following the end of an
unpleasant event.
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 11
(d) Does relief primarily occur in circumstances in which one is personally
responsible for an outcome? Is it more strongly associated with action rather
than inaction?
As we have pointed out, in the decision-making literature, relief is sometimes
characterized as being the antonym of regret, and, within the regret literature, the role of
personal responsibility has been an important focus of research. Indeed, one of the central
findings of Gilovich and Medvec’s (1994) landmark study of self-reported regrets is that the
vast majority of the described instances of regret over 95% involved events that were
within the person’s control. It has since been documented experimentally that the experience
of regret tends to accompany thoughts about how one could have, or should have, acted
differently by contrast to disappointment, which is often experienced when a negative
outcome happens independently of one’s own decision (Zeelenberg, Van Dijk, & Manstead,
1998). Thus, the experience of regret typically involves focusing attention on one’s own role
in the occurrence of a regretted outcome and is strongly associated with a feeling of personal
responsibility (e.g., Wrosch & Heckhausen, 2002; Zeelenberg et al., 2000).
Moreover, even in circumstances in which events are under one’s personal control, it is
possible to distinguish between experiences of regret following action versus those following
inaction. In Gilovich and Medvec’s (1994) study of self-reported regrets, people describe
regret experiences following both action and inaction. Nevertheless, there is a temporal
pattern to this dimension of regret. In the short-term, people tend to be more regretful
about negative outcomes that stem from actions taken than about equally negative outcomes
that result from actions foregone (Gleicher et al., 1990; Kahneman & Tversky, 1982;
Landman, 1987). Interestingly, the pattern reverses for long-term regrets: When looking
back, people tend to experience most regret over the things that they did not do (e.g., Beike
et al., 2009; Gilovich & Medvec, 1994; Landman & Manis, 1992). Potential reasons for this
are discussed by Gilovich and Medvec (1995; see also Savitsky et al., 1997).
To the best of our knowledge, by contrast, very little is known about the role of
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personal responsibility or action versus inaction in the events that people report as triggering
relief. Thus, when examining the nature of the events described as triggering relief in the
current study, we explored the role of responsibility and activity of the experiencer in
determining such events. If relief experiences do have two distinct types of antecedents, then
there may be differential relations between these experiences and both agent responsibility
and activity.
(e) Do people report that relief is related to decision making?
According to Hoerl (2015), discerning two types of relief is of practical value because
the antecedents of relief likely determine its behavioral consequences. He speculates that
anticipating relief following the endurance of an unwelcome experience may serve to make
people more likely to engage in aversive but ultimately beneficial activities (Hoerl, 2015);
Sweeny and Vohs (2012) also suggest that task-completion relief may serve to motivate
people to complete unpleasant tasks. So, for example, feeling relief after completing a run in
cold and wet weather might serve to motivate further runs and thus yield associated health
benefits. To the best of our knowledge, empirical studies have not yet examined whether
anticipating relief following the ending of an unpleasant but beneficial experience does
actually increase the likelihood that one will engage in that experience, although this seems
like a plausible intuition.
This also raises the issue of the function (if any) of relief experiences when there is a
counterfactual precursor. Sweeny and Vohs (2012) suggest that what they term near-miss
relief could prompt people to learn to avoid similar situations in the future, perhaps because
it serves to highlight the riskiness of a given course of action and leads to risk-aversion
(Burnett et al., 2010; Wu et al., 2017). However, we note that if relief triggered by
counterfactuals is construed as the antonym of regret, this might also lead one to expect it to
have the opposite functional role to that emotion, which runs counter to Sweeny and Vohs’
suggestion. Regret is known to support choice switching (e.g., Brassen et al., 2012; E.
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 13
O’Connor et al., 2014), i.e., having regretted one’s choice, when faced with a similar choice
again, one will choose differently. Thus, if relief has the opposite effect to regret, it should
serve to reinforce a past choice or behavior rather than leading to avoidance of that choice.
In our studies, we asked participants questions about the impact that episodes of relief
had on subsequent decision making and examined whether this varied as a function of the
nature of the antecedent of relief. Although there are obvious limitations in using self-report
to study the consequences of experiencing relief, the data did allow us to make a preliminary
examination of whether relief tends to have positive or negative impact on decision making.
We were also able to specifically examine whether experiencing relief with a temporal
antecedent was associated with participants reporting they were more likely to endure
similar unpleasant experiences in the future.
Overview of Studies
As we have discussed, there are three existing accounts that distinguish, albeit in
somewhat different ways, between two ‘types’ of relief. These accounts all have in common
the idea that there are two different triggering conditions for relief. Because we wanted to
keep the framing of the current studies as broad as possible, we decided to initially adopt the
distinction between temporal and counterfactual precursors of relief, on the assumption that
this distinction maps on to the commonalities between three accounts and does not
necessarily imply that there are two distinct types of relief (e.g., with different
phenomenology or function). For the purposes of our studies, temporal precursors were
understood as the coming to an end of any type of negative experience, and counterfactual
precursors were understood as an unrealized negative outcome. Taken together, the studies
allowed us to begin to address the set of questions about relief that we have outlined above.
In Studies 1 and 2, large groups of participants completed online questionnaires that
asked them to briefly describe and reflect on a time from their past when they felt the
emotion of relief. Each description was coded as having temporal or counterfactual
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 14
precursors, or as hybrid with both precursors. Participants were also asked to make
judgments about the intensity of the experience and how often they had thought about the
event since its occurrence. As well as examining whether there appear to be distinct cases of
relief involving either temporal or counterfactual precursors, this also allowed us to examine
whether hybrid cases are associated with more intense relief, or more likely to be recalled. As
in the literature on regret, we also broadly categorized the life domains into which each
experience fell. Motivated by the questions described above concerning the relation between
relief and decision making, we additionally asked participants to (i) make judgments about
the frequency of counterfactual thinking following the experience, (ii) report the extent to
which they were personally responsible for the precipitating event, (iii) report whether the
event was a result of action or inaction, and (iv) judge the impact of the experience on
subsequent choices and decisions. Studies 3 and 4 then followed up on these findings by
using more focused methodologies to examine the likelihood of ‘purely’ counterfactual
precursors to relief (Study 3) and ‘purely’ temporal precursors (Study 4).
Study 1: Real-Life Episodes of Relief
Method
Participants. A total of 513 adults aged between 18 and 60 were recruited via
Prolific (https://www.prolific.co/), a web-based crowd-sourcing platform. To allow the
researchers to interpret answers to open-ended questions, only native English speakers
residing in the United Kingdom were eligible to take part. The final sample after exclusions
(see supplementary materials for details) included 500 participants (59% female, Mage =
37.29 years, SDage = 12.22), the majority of whom reported having higher education
(60.40%). Characteristics of the final sample, split by level of education, are presented in the
supplement. All participants received an honorarium (2 UK pounds) for completing the
survey, which took approximately 12 minutes. The required sample size was estimated a
priori using G*Power 3.1 (Faul et al., 2007) to test goodness of fit with medium effect size
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 15
(w= 0.2) and alpha level of .05. Results showed a sample of 495 was needed to achieve a
power of .95. The estimated sample size was also adequate for detecting small effects (f=
0.1) in ANOVA models (assuming α= .01, and power = 95%). 1
Materials and procedure. All studies reported in this paper were approved and
conducted in accordance with the guidelines of the Faculty Ethics Committee, on behalf of
the university of the first author. For Studies 1-3, the data were collected using Qualtrics
(Qualtrics, 2019), an online survey tool. Following standard demographic questions about
age, gender, and level of education, participants were instructed to think about a time in
their life when they felt the emotion of relief and to provide a detailed description of the
circumstances in which they felt this emotion using an open-ended text box. A valid
description had to contain a minimum of 10 characters, with no upper word limit.
Subsequent questions (summarized in Table 1) concerned how long ago the incident occurred
and probed thought frequency after the event. Participants also rated the intensity of the
relief they experienced on a 100-point scale anchored very weak to the left and very intense
to the right.
To examine the hypothesized distinction between counterfactual and temporal
precursors of relief, we asked respondents to indicate whether the emotion they had
described related to: an unpleasant event that had ended (categorized as a temporal
precursor), a bad outcome that was avoided (categorized as a counterfactual precursor), both
an unpleasant event that had ended and a bad outcome that was avoided (categorized as a
hybrid precursor), or neither an unpleasant event that had ended nor a bad outcome that
was avoided. These judgments were subsequently verified by a coder who read the event
description provided by the participant. Next, we posed two questions to establish whether
the circumstances surrounding relief-inducing episodes were under participants’ control.
Participants had to indicate who was mainly responsible for the circumstances in which they
felt relief and whose decision led to these circumstances. Participants were then asked
1The same calculation was used in Studies 2 and 4.
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whether they attributed the events to action or inaction (where action was defined as a
decision to do something and inaction as a decision not to do something); if they had
previously answered that the decision had been mainly theirs, the question was worded as
one about their own action/inaction, whereas if they had previously answered that the
decision had been mainly someone else’s, they were asked about the other’s action/inaction.
Whenever respondents indicated that no decision was involved in the circumstances in which
they felt relief, they were instead instructed to report whether they experienced relief
because something happened or because something did not happen.
Participants also completed a set of judgments concerning the degree of upward and
downward counterfactual thinking following the event and the impact of this relief, if any, on
subsequent choice. A sub-sample of participants who indicated that the feeling of relief they
had described was related to either a bad outcome that was avoided (counterfactual
precursor) or both an unpleasant event that had ended and a bad outcome that was avoided
(hybrid precursor) were additionally asked to undo the event and generate counterfactual
mutations by completing open-ended stems beginning with Things would have been worse
if. . . . Participants were instructed to provide at least one and up to four mutations. A final
binary (yes/no) question probed the impact of relief. If participants responded in the
affirmative, they were asked to provide additional details using an open-ended text box. The
precise wording of all survey questions reported in this paper is provided in the
supplementary materials.
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Table 1
A summary of survey questions used in Studies 1 and 2. Note:
featured only in Study 2,
featured only in Study 1.
Area of
interest
Question Response format
Relief
precursors
We would like you to take a moment to think about
a time in your life when you felt the emotion of
relief. Please provide a detailed description of the
circumstances in which you felt this emotion.
A text box in which respondents formulated their own
answers
Distance from
the event
How long ago did this event happen?
Eight response choices ranging from less than a week
ago to more than 10 years ago in Study 1 and from 1
day ago to 7 days ago in Study 2
Rumination
How often have you thought about this event since it
happened?
A 100-point scale ranging from never to very frequently
Ease of
retrieval
How easy was it to bring this event to mind? A 100-point ranging from very easy to very difficult
Intensity
Bearing in mind the event that you have described:
[Description provided here]. Please rate the intensity
of the relief you experienced.
A 100-point scale ranging from very weak to very
intense
Precursor
Was the feeling of relief that you have described related
to:
Four response choices: i) an unpleasant event that had
ended, ii) a bad outcome that was avoided, ii) both an
unpleasant event that had ended and a bad outcome
that was avoided and iv) neither an unpleasant event
that had ended nor a bad outcome that was avoided
Person
responsible
Who was mainly responsible for the circumstances in
which you felt relief?
Three response choices: i) I was mainly responsible, ii)
someone else was mainly responsible, iii) no one was
responsible
Decision maker
Whose decision led to the circumstances in which you
felt relief?
Three response choices: i) mainly my decision, ii)
mainly someone else’s decision, iii) nobody’s decision
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 18
Area of
interest
Question Response format
Action/inaction
You said that it was mainly your/someone else’s
decision that led to the circumstances in which you
felt relief. Was the decision that you made:
Two response choices: i) a decision to do something,
ii) a decision not to do something
Downward
counterfactual
thinking
Following the event that you have described, were you
thinking about how things could have been worse?
A 100-point scale ranging from no, not at all to yes, a
lot
Upward
counterfactual
thinking
Following the event that you have described, were you
thinking about how things could have been better?
A 100-point scale ranging from no, not at all to yes, a
lot
Counterfactual
mutations
What could have been different (e.g., about you, about
somebody else, about your behavior, about people
involved, about the situation) so that the event could
have had a worse ending?
Four text boxes beginning with Things would have been
worse if...
Impact
Has the feeling of relief that you described had an
impact on any choices and decisions you have made
since?
Yes or no
Impact
Please explain how the feeling of relief that you
described had an impact on choices and decisions you
have made since.
A text box in which respondents formulated their own
answers
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 19
Coding schemes. Each description of a relief-inducing episode was judged by the
participants as involving either a temporal precursor, a counterfactual precursor, hybrid, or
neither. Prior to analyses, these judgments were verified by a coder who determined whether
the description provided by the participant matched their response to the question probing
the precursors of relief. Overall, the coder agreed with the participants 84.40% of the time
(Cohen’s Kappa = 0.76, 95% confidence intervals (CI) [0.71, 0.81]). Over half of the
disagreements (48 of 78) were due to some participants’ propensity to categorize their relief
experiences as having neither temporal nor counterfactual precursors, when (as evaluated by
the coder) antecedents of the relevant instance of relief could be clearly identified from the
description. Out of the 48 participants unable to classify antecedents of relief, 52.08% had
higher education and 47.92% did not, indicating that the inability to categorize relief
precursors as either counterfactual, temporal, or both was not driven by the linguistic
complexity of the question. All coding discrepancies were resolved by an independent
adjudicator who was considered a third rater. In those instances, the classification agreed on
by two of three raters (i.e., participant, coder, adjudicator) became the final categorization.
All 78 disagreements were resolved in favor of the coder. In one instance, where all three
raters disagreed, the data were removed from further analyses.
We coded each open-ended description of a relief-inducing episode by drawing on prior
theoretical conceptualizations of the domains of life priorities (e.g., Oishi & Diener, 2001;
Roese & Summerville, 2005) and inducing a set of categories to describe the contexts in
which participants reported having experienced relief. All open-ended survey responses were
loaded into NVivo qualitative data analysis software (NVivo, 2018), which was used to
develop the coding scheme and code text-based data. Discrepancies between coders were
negotiated until consensus was reached. All stems provided in response to the prompt (i.e.,
Things would have been worse if. . .) were coded as mutating an aspect of the situation that
was either under participant’s control,under someone else’s control, or uncontrollable.
Finally, all impact statements provided in response to the question probing the consequences
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 20
of the relief episode for subsequent decision making were coded in terms of valence (positive,
negative, or ambiguous), type of change (behavioral, attitude, both behavioral and attitude,
or ambiguous) and participant’s willingness to complete unpleasant tasks in future (yes or
no).
Transparency and openness. For all four studies, we report how we determined
our sample size, all data exclusions, and all measures collected in the study. All data,
analysis code, and research materials are available on the Open Science Framework
[https://osf.io/dz6f4/; Graham et al. (2022)]. Experimental designs and data analysis plans
were not pre-registered.
Data were analyzed using R, version 4.0.0 (R Core Team, 2018), and written using the
package papaja (Aust & Barth, 2018). To analyze the data, a model comparison approach
based on Bayes factors, implemented with the
BayesFactor
package in
R
(Morey & Rouder,
2018) was used. Bayesian statistics provide a better foundation for probabilistic inference
than null hypothesis significance testing (e.g., Wagenmakers, 2007). In our implementation,
Bayes factors (BF) reflect the weight of evidence in favor of omitting a particular component
from a model containing all relevant available variables. Bayes factors in favor of a particular
main effect (over the null model) or interaction (over main effects only) are reported as BF
10
,
whereas Bayes factors in favor of the null are reported as BF01 (BF10 = 1/BF01). A large
BF
10
value indicates strong evidence for including the parameter; i.e., that it was important
in predicting the data. Conversely, a large BF01 value indicates strong evidence that the
parameter was not important.
Results
As illustrated in Figure 1 (Panel A), the corpus of reports elicited in Study 1 pertained
to many facets of life, with the five most commonly reported relief-inducing episodes falling
into the following life domains (in descending order of frequency): health (e.g., “Discovering
I did not have cancer”), education (e.g., “When I got my Uni results and realized I had done
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 21
better than expected”), emergencies and accidents (e.g., “When I turned the corner whilst
learning to drive and lost control but managed to weave through the 3 cars that I almost
hit”), career and employment (e.g., “I felt relief when I found out I had got my current job
as I was very unhappy in my previous employment”), and lost (possessions) or missing
(pets/people; e.g., “When my cat went missing and I found her stuck in a shed a couple of
days later”). Across all domains, many descriptions referred to a state of mental uncertainty
associated with awaiting an outcome or decision (e.g., medical test results, exam grades, job
interview invitations; see supplementary materials for additional details). Domains of relief
split by type of precursor are reported in the supplement.
Death
Romantic relationships
Finance & legal
Misc
Parenting
Lost & missing
Career
Emergencies
Education
Health
0% 10% 20% 30%
Life domains of relief
A
45.8%
39.4%
14.8%
0%
10%
20%
30%
40%
Hybrid Counterfactual Temporal
Study 1 (N = 500)
Type of relief precursor
B
Figure 1 . The percentage of relief-inducing episodes reported in Study 1 split by life domain
(A) and type of relief precursor (B).
What are the precursors of relief, and are there hybrid precursors? The
final dataset of 500 relief-inducing episodes split by type of relief precursor is depicted in
Figure 1, panel B. Descriptions varied considerably in terms of temporal distance from the
event and included very recent experiences on one end of the spectrum and recollections of
events that occurred many years in the past on the other end. Overall, the majority of
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 22
participants (61.00%) reported situations that occurred more than 1 year ago (see Figure S1
in the supplement). Most pertinently for the current paper, feelings of relief triggered (solely
or in part) by the avoidance of a negative outcome were reported more frequently than
feelings experienced solely because an unpleasant event came to an end. Specifically, 39.40%
of descriptions were coded as involving counterfactual precursors (e.g., “I had to rehome my
pet lizard (a specialist species) and I was relieved that I managed to find a fantastic new
home for him”; “When I thought I had made a mistake in my tax return and found that I
had not”) and 45.80% as involving hybrid precursors (e.g., “When my partner accepted me
back after a period of separation, due to inappropriate behavior on my part”). Purely
temporal precursors, on the contrary, were reported only 14.80% of the time (e.g., “I had a
job interview I spent a long time preparing for and, although I didn’t get the job, I was
relieved when the whole thing was over”). A Chi-square test of goodness of fit indicated that
the frequency of reports varied significantly by type of precursor,
χ2
(2, n= 500) = 80.36, p
< .001.
Is intensity and salience in memory stronger in cases with hybrid
precursors?
Participants’ ratings of relief intensity and post-event thought frequency are
presented in Figure 2 (panels A and B). A one-way ANOVA performed on the intensity data
revealed a main effect of precursor type (F(2,497) = 6.39,MSE = 167.59,p=.002,
ˆη2
G=.025,BF10 = 9.44), with relief following hybrid precursors being most intense overall.
Post-hoc comparisons (t-tests) indicated that events considered to have both counterfactual
and temporal precursors were judged as significantly more intense than those considered only
temporal in nature (M= 5.83, 95% CI [1.97,9.69],t(99.83) = 3.00,p=.003,
BF10 = 42.52). The other differences were not significant (both p> .017,
Bonferroni-corrected). Analogous analysis of the frequency of post-event thought yielded an
inconclusive Bayes factor (BF10 = 0.71) in favor of the null (F(2,497) = 3.49,
MSE = 739.74,p=.031), indicating that type of precursor had no discernible effect on the
amount of time spent mentally re-visiting the event.
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 23
40
60
80
100
Hybrid Counterfactual Temporal
Relief intensity
A
0
25
50
75
100
Hybrid Counterfactual Temporal
Post−event thought frequency
B
Hybrid
Counterfactual
Temporal
Downward Upward Downward Upward Downward Upward
0
25
50
75
100
Frequency of counterfactual thinking
C
Figure 2 . Self-reported ratings of relief intensity (panel A), the frequency of post-event
thought (panel B), and the frequency of upward and downward counterfactual thinking (panel
C), depicted by type of precursor. Points are individual scores (jittered within groups to
reduce overlap) with split-half violin illustrating distribution; black lines indicate median; the
lower and upper hinges correspond to the first and third quartiles; whiskers depict maximum
and minimum values within 1.5 times the interquartile range.
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 24
Do relief precursors differ in terms of their link with counterfactual
thought? Presented in Figure 2 (panel C) is the average self-reported frequency of
counterfactual thinking following the event. A mixed 2 x 3 ANOVA with a within-subjects
factor of direction (upward and downward counterfactual thinking) and a between-subjects
factor of type of precursor (temporal, counterfactual, hybrid) revealed a main effect of
direction (F(1,497) = 330.08,MSE = 970.81,p<.001,ˆη2
G=.260), with thoughts about
how things might have been worse being, overall, more recurrent than thoughts about how
things might have been better (M= 76.68 [SD = 28.16] and M= 40.87 [SD = 34.42],
respectively). The main effect of relief precursor (
F
(2
,
497) = 4
.
97,
MSE
= 861
.
91,
p
=
.
007,
ˆη2
G=.009) was also significant, with a difference in the overall frequency of counterfactual
thinking (irrespective of direction) between relief with a hybrid precursor and a
counterfactual precursor (
MD
= 6.21, 95% CI [1.35, 11.1],
t
(997) = 2.51, Bonferroni-adjusted
p= .037). The other two pairwise comparisons (i.e., hybrid vs temporal, counterfactual vs
temporal) were non-significant. Finally, the interaction term between direction and relief
precursors (F(2,497) = 34.70,MSE = 970.81,p<.001,ˆη2
G=.069) was also significant.
Accordingly, Bayesian ANOVA revealed strong support for a full model containing both
main effects and the two-way interaction, relative to the next strongest model containing
only the main effect of direction (BF10 > 100).
To follow up on the direction by precursor interaction, paired t-tests revealed that
participants who described an instance of relief with a counterfactual precursor, or an episode
that involved both counterfactual and temporal precursors, reported significantly higher
rates of downward counterfactual thinking than upward counterfactual thinking (for hybrid
precursors:
MD
= 42
.
00, 95% CI [36
.
44
,
47
.
56],
t
(228) = 14
.
87,
p<.
001,
BF10
= 1
.
33
×
10
32
;
for counterfactual precursors: MD= 43.38, 95% CI [37.44,49.32],t(196) = 14.40,p<.001,
BF10
= 1
.
95
×
10
29
). By contrast, the frequency of counterfactual thought did not differ as a
function of direction for those respondents who described purely temporal precursors of relief
(t(73) = 0.59,p=.559,BF10 = 0.15). Thus, in summary, hybrid precursors and
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 25
counterfactual precursors were specifically characterized by significantly more downward than
upward counterfactual thinking as compared with relief triggered by temporal precursors.
Does relief primarily occur in circumstances in which one is personally
responsible for an outcome? We found a significant association between responses to
two questions probing personal agency (
χ2
(4, n= 500) = 190.43, p< .001), indicating that
the reported decision maker was also typically the person perceived to bear responsibility for
the circumstances leading up to relief experiences. Therefore, in the interest of brevity, data
relating to the main decision maker are reported in the main manuscript (Figure 3, panel A)
and responses to the question probing responsibility (for Study 1 and Study 2) are included
in the supplement. A Chi-square test revealed that the reported decision maker (i.e., the
participant, someone else, no one) varied significantly by type of precursor (
χ2
(4, n= 500) =
21.62, p< .001). With respect to temporal relief precursors, the participant was the most
frequently reported decision maker. By contrast, purely counterfactual and hybrid precursors
of relief were most often linked to a decision made by someone other than the respondent.
A second way in which we looked at the role of agency was by asking participants to
generate counterfactual mutations and then examining the extent to which participants
focused on their own actions. To do this, counterfactual mutations were initially extracted
for those instances of relief categorized as having either counterfactual or hybrid precursors
by the participant and by the independent rater/adjudicator. A total of 896 if stems were
then subsequently coded as mutating an aspect of the situation that was either under
participant’s control, under someone else’s control, or uncontrollable. Twenty-two responses
that could not be coded using this scheme were labelled as ambiguous. Overall, 60.04%
stems were coded as uncontrollable, 25.33% as under the participant’s control, and 12.17% as
under someone else’s control. Thus, consistent with the data reported in Figure 3 (Panel A),
the participants themselves did not typically focus on their own actions when considering
ways in which the relief-inducing event could have been worse.
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 26
0%
10%
20%
30%
40%
Hybrid Counterfactual Temporal
Nobody's decision
Someone else's decision
My decision
(N = 500)
Decision maker
A
0%
10%
20%
30%
40%
Hybrid Counterfactual Temporal
Inaction
Action
(N = 138)
Action vs inaction
B
Figure 3 . The percentage of descriptions of real-life experiences of relief collected in Study 1,
split by type of relief precursor, the reported decision maker (i.e., participant, someone else,
no one; panel A) and the action/inaction dichotomy in a subset of the data containing 138
participants who reported that they were the decision maker (panel B).
Is relief more likely following action rather than inaction? To establish
whether relief is more likely following action or inaction we analyzed a subset of the data for
which the participant was the reported decision maker. Overall, 131 out of 138 (94.93%)
participants/decision makers attributed the relief-inducing events to an action rather than
inaction (see Figure 3, panel B) and the likelihood of the event being due to an action or an
inaction did not differ significantly as a function of type of precursor (
χ2
(2, n= 138) = 1.41,
p= .495). Across the board, over 90% (92.98%–97.92%) of relief episodes were reported to
be associated with an action. Furthermore, although the action effect was most pronounced
for experiences where the participant was the decision maker (94.93% due to action, n=
138), action was also predominant when someone else had made the decision (80.40% due to
action, n= 199). On the other hand, when no one was responsible for the decision, the
outcome was attributed to inaction slightly more often than to action (45.40% due to action,
n= 163). Finally, the overall ratio of events linked to actions and inactions remained stable
across the data set and did not vary by temporal distance in the past which was measured
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 27
with eight response choices ranging from less than a week ago to more than 10 years ago,
χ2(7, n= 138) = 4.10, p= .768.
Do experiences of relief have an impact on decision making, and does this
vary as a function of precursor? Finally, 60.40% of all respondents indicated that the
feeling of relief they had described had an impact on choices and decisions they made since.
The likelihood of the relief-inducing event being judged as having an impact on participants’
subsequent choices and decisions differed significantly as a function of type of relief precursor
(
χ2
(2, n= 500) = 8.81, p= .012), suggesting that some relief experiences are more likely to
lead to such changes. More specifically, relief episodes linked to hybrid precursors were
reported as having an impact on future decision making more frequently (67.25% of the
time) than feelings of relief that had either purely counterfactual or purely temporal
antecedents (53.30% and 58.11%, respectively). Furthermore, and perhaps unsurprisingly,
there was an association between judging oneself to be the main decision maker responsible
for the relief-inducing event and judging that the episode had an impact on choices or
decisions, χ2(2, n= 500) = 12.22, p= .002.
All impact statements (n= 302) were coded in terms of valence (positive, negative, or
ambiguous), type of change (behavioral, attitude, both behavioral and attitude, or
ambiguous) and participant’s willingness to complete unpleasant tasks in the future. We
were interested in the latter category because of the suggestion that relief with temporal
precursors increases the likelihood that one will endure unpleasant but beneficial experiences
in the future (Hoerl, 2015; Sweeny & Vohs, 2012). In terms of valence, the vast majority of
participants (81.46%) reported that relief experiences had a positive impact on their
subsequent choices and decisions. The remaining impact statements were mainly ambiguous
(17.88%; i.e., neither positive nor negative) with only two participants reporting to have been
negatively impacted by relief experiences (0.66%). Furthermore, almost half (45.70%) of
participants disclosed having made behavioral changes in the aftermath of relief experiences
(e.g., to spend less, to be more pro-active), whilst another 31.46% of statements revealed
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 28
changes in terms of outlook and attitude (e.g., becoming more appreciative, becoming more
careful). A smaller proportion of participants (15.89%) described consequences that
encompassed changes in both behavior and attitude (e.g., checking for cancer symptoms
more regularly as well as becoming more aware of signs and symptoms of cancer).
Twenty-one of 302 descriptions (6.95%) could not be categorized as belonging to either one
of the aforementioned categories. Overall, only 11.92% of statements were categorized as
indicating that participants will be more likely to complete aversive tasks in the future and
the frequency of reports did not differ by type of precursor
χ2
(2, n= 302) = 0.30, p= .859.
Thus, as they stand, these analyses suggest that experiences of relief are at least conceived of
by the experiencer as having a positive effect on subsequent decision making. However, there
is very little evidence that relief following a temporal precursor typically increases the
likelihood of enduring an unpleasant but beneficial experience.
Discussion
In Study 1 we collected a corpus of first-person reports of real-life episodes of relief and
distilled their features; we also probed aspects of people’s reports of the relief-inducing
context and relief’s behavioral consequences. Participants were largely able to categorize the
precursors that triggered the episode of relief as counterfactual, temporal, or a hybrid of
both. Notably, the vast majority (85.20%) of the instances of relief reported were described
as having some type of counterfactual precursor, either on its own or as part of a hybrid, and
episodes with hybrid precursors were the single most reported type of instance. Experiences
of relief that had hybrid precursors, in addition to being recalled most frequently, were rated
as more intense than those with only counterfactual or temporal antecedents. This apparent
association between emotion intensity and memory recall is in line with the extant literature
showing that emotional memories are generally easier to remember and more resilient to
forgetting than unemotional memories (Hall et al., 2021; e.g., Talarico et al., 2004) and that,
particularly when memory is tested after longer retention intervals, emotionally arousing
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 29
events are better recollected than more neutral events (Wirkner et al., 2018).
The data also revealed that relief experiences preceded by either counterfactual or
temporal precursors have different associations with counterfactual thinking. Specifically,
relief experienced following counterfactual precursors was found to be characterized by
significantly more downward than upward counterfactual thinking as compared with relief
triggered by purely temporal precursors, which is what would be predicted if relief in the
former type of circumstance is a counterfactual emotion underpinned by downward
counterfactual thoughts. By contrast, instances of relief experiences with purely temporal
precursors appear to elicit equivalent amounts of upward and downward counterfactual
thoughts. Thus, it is not the propensity to think counterfactually but rather the direction of
the comparison that seems to distinguish between relief experiences with different types of
precursors.
A somewhat surprising aspect of the results is the frequency of upward counterfactual
thoughts related to relief. Although such thoughts were particularly common in the case of
experiences of relief judged to have temporal precursors, even in the case of experiences of
relief with counterfactual or hybrid precursors, a substantial minority of participants
reported upward counterfactuals. The presence of concurrent downward and upward
counterfactual thoughts in the latter case is consistent with the possibility that, in some
instances, regret and relief can be experienced simultaneously. Speculatively, this might be
driven by the multiplicity of potential counterfactual outcomes. Take for example a poker
player with a chance to win $100, win nothing, or lose $100. In this scenario, breaking even
may spur both upward and downward counterfactual comparisons and thus a mixture of
regret and relief. Alternatively, in the case of relief experiences with purely temporal
precursors, although people may have been relieved that an unpleasant experience is over
they may, at the same time, entertain thoughts that things would have been better if the
experience had not been undergone in the first place, potentially yielding regret. This
possibility is consistent with findings described by Lorimer et al. (2022) who observed that
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 30
after Joe Biden was inaugurated as President in 2021, Republican voters felt relieved that
the process was over whilst regretting the outcome.
One of the aims of our study was to examine relations between descriptions of everyday
episodes of relief and attributions of personal responsibility, the action/inaction distinction,
and decision making. Strikingly, when there was a counterfactual component to the relief
precursor (either on its own or as part of a hybrid), the participants typically judged
themselves as not personally responsible, a finding which contrasts sharply with the pattern
observed for everyday episodes of regret (e.g., Gilovich & Medvec, 1994). Consistent with
this, when then asked to generate mutations that would have instead yielded the poor
outcome that was avoided, participants rarely focused on things within their own control.
Thus, the findings suggest that although relief experiences do seem to be frequently triggered
by counterfactual comparisons, even in these circumstances relief does not seem to
straightforwardly be the positively valenced counterpart of regret people most typically
felt relieved about avoiding poor outcomes in scenarios in which they were not in control of
the relevant decisions, whereas regret is strongly associated with personal responsibility.
The link between regret and personal responsibility has often been assumed to be an
important reason why regret affects decision making: If people feel regret about choices they
have made, this may result in making different choices when faced with a similar situation
again (McCormack et al., 2020; Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2007). Although relief episodes with
counterfactual precursors did not typically result from participants’ own choices, nevertheless
around 60% of respondents believed that the episode led to constructive changes in behavior
and outlook. Although this type of self-report measure can only provide preliminary evidence
for a functional role of relief, exceptionally few participants reported a negative impact on
behavior or outlook. Analysis of the types of changes reported by participants suggested that
the episodes were perceived as having a positive effect on their subsequent behavior or on
their attitudes, and in some instances both. It is interesting that participants believed that
the episode had an impact on their subsequent choices or decisions despite the fact they did
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 31
not typically attribute the original relief-inducing event to their own choices. If this finding
generalizes, then it has implications for how the function of relief might be characterized,
because it suggests it does not straightforwardly contribute to either reinforcing or devaluing
choices made by the participants that yielded the relief-inducing episode.
Unlike relief experiences with counterfactual precursors, participants typically linked
relief experiences with purely temporal precursors to decisions for which they themselves had
direct responsibility. Moreover, relief experiences with this type of precursor were
particularly likely to involve an action rather than an inaction (i.e., in most cases, the
relevant event involved the participant themselves carrying out an action). We were
interested in the function of relief under these circumstances, given suggestions that it
specifically serves to motivate people to complete unpleasant but beneficial tasks (Hoerl,
2015; Sweeny & Vohs, 2012). The reported characteristics of the triggering events i.e., as
ones that typically involved an action on the part of the participant themselves are
consistent with this suggestion, because they imply that participants experienced relief at
the cessation of an unpleasant experience that they had proactively chosen to undergo in the
first instance. However, an analysis of participants’ descriptions of the subsequent impact of
the relief-inducing episode did not provide good evidence in support of this idea, with only
around 10% of descriptions categorized as motivating people to undergo an unpleasant but
beneficial experience in the future. In summary, although, for all types of precursors, the
majority of participants believed that experiencing an episode involving relief did have a
positive impact on their choices or decisions, considerably more research is required to
establish why this is the case.
Study 2: Recent Experiences of Relief
Study 2 had two main purposes. First, it served as an attempt to replicate some of the
key findings of Study 1, given the exploratory nature of this research. Second, it aimed to
address an aspect of Study 1’s findings that we found surprising. Specifically, we were
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 32
surprised by the findings which suggested that experiences of relief with ‘purely’ temporal
precursors are much rarer in everyday life than experiences involving counterfactual
precursors (either purely counterfactual or hybrid; see Figure 1). An alternative explanation
of this finding is that, in studies using retrospective methods, instances of relief spurred by
counterfactual comparisons are retrieved more easily (and thus more frequently) than
episodes involving purely temporal precursors. Notably, the majority of participants in Study
1 recollected events that took place more than 1 year ago. Perhaps people experience many
instances of relief with temporal precursors in everyday life but typically do not remember
them over the longer term. We sought to answer this question by asking participants to
reflect on a more readily retrievable experience a time in the last week, when they felt the
emotion of relief. Our goal was to establish whether relief experiences preceded by
counterfactual precursors are genuinely more commonplace or instead simply more
memorable than relief experiences triggered by purely temporal precursors. Speculatively,
recollections of situations in which an unpleasant experience came to an end (i.e., purely
temporal instances of relief) may be subject to more rapid decay over time, consistent with a
well-established fading affect bias showing that affect associated with unpleasant events fades
faster than the affect associated with pleasant events (e.g., Walker et al., 2003).
Method
Participants. Only native English speakers residing in the United Kingdom and
aged between 18 and 60 were eligible to participate. A total of 536 adults were recruited via
Prolific. Data from 33 volunteers were excluded from analysis (see supplementary materials
for reasons for exclusion), resulting in a final sample of 503 respondents (65.21% female,
Mage
= 37.67 years,
SDage
= 12.33). Participants’ characteristics split by level of education
are included in the supplement. Over half of participants (56.26%) had higher education. All
respondents received 1.50 UK pounds for completing the survey, which took approximately
10 minutes.
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 33
Materials and procedure. The survey questions and experimental procedures
were identical to those used in Study 1, with three exceptions. First, participants were asked
to describe a time in the last week (rather than a time in their life) when they felt the
emotion of relief and to answer questions about the recollected events. Second, participants
additionally estimated how easy it was to bring the reported event to mind using a 100-point
scale anchored very easy to the left and very difficult to the right; this was to address
whether ease of memory retrieval varied as a function of type of precursor. Third, given the
questionnaire’s focus on experiences that had occurred very recently, the questions probing
the impact of the relief on future choices and decisions were excluded from the survey.
Coding schemes. Coding procedures were identical to those used in Study 1. The
coder agreed with the participants 75.35% of the time (Cohen’s Kappa = 0.64, 95% CI [0.59,
0.70]). The majority of the disagreements (89 of 124) were driven by the participants’
propensity to categorize relief as having neither temporal nor counterfactual precursors. On
a further 33 occasions, the participant classified their experience of relief as having purely
temporal precursors but the coder indicated that the description of the event also contained
specific references to unrealized counterfactual outcomes. All disagreements were resolved in
favor of the coder. Out of 89 individuals who categorized the precursors of relief as neither
temporal nor counterfactual, 60.67% had higher education and 39.33% did not, which is in
line with broader sample characteristics (i.e., 56.26% of all participants included in Study 2
reported having higher education). This suggests that the inability to accurately pinpoint
the antecedents of relief was not driven by the phrasing of the question which may have been
less comprehensible to those with less education.
Results
Figure 4 depicts the final dataset of 503 descriptions of relief, split by type of precursor
and life domain into which the emotions fell. The most common instances of relief people
reported having experienced in the previous week pertained to the following life domains:
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 34
health (e.g., recovering from an illness), career and employment (e.g., meeting an important
deadline), financial and legal matters (e.g., being able to secure sufficient funds to cover
expenses), and education (e.g., completing coursework).
36%
47%
17%
0%
10%
20%
30%
40%
Hybrid Counterfactual Temporal
Study 2 (N = 503)
Type of relief precursor
A
Romantic relationships
Emergencies
Travel
Parenting
Lifestyle & time off
Lost & missing
Misc
Education
Finance & legal
Career
Health
0% 5% 10% 15% 20%
Life domains of relief
B
Figure 4 . The percentage of descriptions of real-life instances of relief reported in Study 2,
split by the type of relief precursor (panel A) and life domain (panel B).
What are the precursors of relief, and are there hybrid precursors?
Purely
temporal precursors of relief were reported by 17.30% of participants, which is similar to the
rate observed in Study 1 of 14.80%. Instances of relief triggered by counterfactual precursors
or hybrid precursors were described more frequently (47.10% and 35.60% of the time,
respectively); this resembled the pattern of findings obtained in Study 1, although in that
study hybrid precursors were somewhat more common than purely counterfactual precursors.
Accordingly, a Chi-square test of goodness of fit indicated that the frequency of reports
varied significantly by type of precursor, χ2(2, n= 503) = 68.25, p< .001.
Is intensity and salience in memory stronger in cases with hybrid
precursors?
Also presented in Figure 5 are the average ratings of relief intensity (panel A)
and thought frequency following the event (panel B). Although the data follow the same
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 35
trend, contrary to the equivalent analysis in Study 1, a one-way ANOVA performed on
intensity ratings revealed support for the null model (F(2,500) = 2.40,MSE = 334.77,
p=.092,ˆη2
G=.010,BF10 = 0.24), indicating that recent experiences did not vary
significantly in terms of intensity as a function of their precursors. Also at odds with the
results from Study 1, a one-way ANOVA performed on the reports of frequency of post-event
thought yielded a modest Bayes factor of 3.06 in favor of a condition effect (
F
(2
,
500) = 5
.
17,
MSE = 792.92,p=.006,ˆη2
G=.020), with thoughts about events with hybrid precursors
being most recurrent. Post-hoc comparisons indicated that events considered to have both
counterfactual and temporal precursors resulted in elevated rates of mental re-visiting when
compared with episodes considered to have only counterfactual (M= 7.37, 95% CI
[1.96,12.77],t(385.13) = 2.68,p=.008,BF10 = 3.41) or only temporal precursors
(
M
= 10
.
28, 95% CI [2
.
75
,
17
.
81],
t
(159
.
24) = 2
.
70,
p
=
.
008,
BF10
= 5
.
17). The difference
in the amount of event-related thinking following emotions triggered by purely
counterfactual and purely temporal precursors was non-significant (M= 2.91, 95% CI
[4.36,10.19],t(144.49) = 0.79,p=.430,BF10 = 0.19). Average ratings of the ease with
which information corresponding to the relief experiences was brought to mind are presented
in Figure 5, panel C. A one-way ANOVA assessing ease of retrieval yielded strong evidence
against a condition effect (F(2,500) = 0.67,MSE = 422.69,p=.515,ˆη2
G=.003,
BF10
= 4
.
59
×
10
2
), indicating that, notwithstanding their antecedents, participants found
all instances of relief equally easy to retrieve.
Do relief precursors differ in terms of their link with counterfactual
thought? The average self-reported rates of counterfactual thinking are presented in
Figure 5 (panel D). A 2 x 3 ANOVA with a within-subjects factor of direction and a
between-subjects factor of type of precursor revealed a main effect of direction,
F(1,500) = 198.29,MSE = 846.42,p<.001,ˆη2
G=.155, with downward counterfactuals
being more recurrent than upward counterfactuals. When aggregated across both directions
(i.e., upward and downward), there were no differences in the overall frequency of
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 36
20
40
60
80
100
Hybrid CounterfactualTemporal
Relief intensity
A
0
25
50
75
100
Hybrid CounterfactualTemporal
Post−event thought
B
0
25
50
75
100
Hybrid CounterfactualTemporal
Ease of retrieval
C
Hybrid
Counterfactual
Temporal
Downward Upward Downward Upward Downward Upward
0
25
50
75
100
Frequency of counterfactual thinking
D
Figure 5 . Average self-reported ratings of relief intensity (panel A), the frequency of post-
event thought (panel B), the ease of retrieval (panel C), and the frequency of counterfactual
thinking (panel D), depicted by type of relief precursor. Points are individual scores with
split-half violin illustrating distribution; black lines indicate median; the lower and upper
hinges correspond to the first and third quartiles; whiskers depict maximum and minimum
values within 1.5 times the interquartile range.
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 37
counterfactual thought between the three types of precursors (all corrected
p
values > .017).
The main main effect of relief precursor (F(2,500) = 3.32,MSE = 981.20,p=.037,
ˆη2
G=.007) and a two-way interaction (F(2,500) = 34.38,MSE = 846.42,p<.001,
ˆη2
G=.060) were also significant, thus replicating the pattern of results obtained in Study 1.
Bayesian analysis confirmed that the best-fitting model contained both main effects and an
interaction (BF10 > 100, relative to the next best model). Post-hoc pairwise comparisons
revealed that participants who described an instance of relief triggered by a counterfactual
precursor, or an episode that involved both counterfactual and temporal precursors, reported
significantly higher rates of downward counterfactual thinking than upward counterfactual
thinking (for hybrid precursors: MD= 27.44, 95% CI [21.21,33.67],t(178) = 8.69,p<.001,
BF10 = 2.55 ×1012; for counterfactual precursors: MD= 36.40, 95% CI [31.23,41.57],
t(236) = 13.87,p<.001,BF10 = 1.31 ×1029). The frequency of counterfactual thought did
not differ as a function of direction for those respondents who described purely temporal
precursors of relief (t(86) = 1.43,p=.158,BF10 = 0.31).
Does relief primarily occur in circumstances in which one is personally
responsible for an outcome? With regards to the issue of personal agency, Figure 6
(panel A) illustrates that relief with a purely temporal precursor was most frequently
attributed to the decision made by the participant. By contrast, instances of relief coded as
having purely counterfactual or hybrid precursors were most often attributed to another’s
decision. A Chi-square test revealed that the decision maker varied significantly by type of
precursor (
χ2
(4, n= 503) = 25.12, p< .001), which mirrors the pattern of findings obtained
in Study 1.
Is relief more likely following action rather than inaction? As shown in
Figure 6 (panel B), 91.88% of participants who attributed their relief experience to a
decision that they had made (n= 197) reported that the event they had described was due
to an action rather than inaction. Overall, 96.88% of events coded as having hybrid
precursors, 90.48% of events coded as having purely counterfactual precursors, and 87.76% of
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 38
0%
10%
20%
30%
40%
Hybrid Counterfactual Temporal
Nobody's decision
Someone else's decision
My decision
(N = 503)
Decision maker
A
0%
10%
20%
30%
40%
Hybrid Counterfactual Temporal
Inaction
Action
(N = 197)
Action vs inaction
B
Figure 6 . The source of attribution (i.e., reported decision maker) and action-inaction
dichotomy (Study 2), plotted by relief precursor. Action/inaction dichotomy depicted with
the data containing only participants who reported that they were the decision maker.
events coded as having purely temporal precursors were considered to occur in consequence
of an action. Accordingly, a Chi-square test revealed that the likelihood of the event being
due to an action or inaction did not vary as a function of type of relief precursor (
χ2
(2, n=
197) = 3.48, p= .176), again replicating the effect obtained in the first study. Although the
action effect was most pronounced for experiences where the participant was the decision
maker (91.88% due to action, n= 197), when someone else had made the decision, 78.84%
(n= 189) of relief episodes were still attributed to action rather than inaction. Contrastingly,
when no one was responsible for the decision, the outcome was attributed to inaction more
often than to action (42.74% due to action, n= 163).
As in Study 1, participants who categorized precursors of their relief as either
counterfactual or hybrid were asked to generate counterfactual mutations. A total of 740 if
stems were subsequently coded as mutating an aspect of the situation that was either under
participant’s control,under someone else’s control, or uncontrollable. Again, in line with the
findings of Study 1, the largest proportion of stems (47.97%) were coded as outside of
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 39
anyone’s control. The remaining 28.51% and 23.11% were classified as within the control of
the participants or other persons involved, respectively. Only three stems (0.41%) could not
be grouped as belonging to one of the three aforementioned categories.
Discussion
The current results are largely consistent with the findings from Study 1. Importantly,
relief with a purely temporal precursor was again the least frequent type of episode reported,
even when participants reported episodes from the very recent past. On the face of it, this
suggests that in everyday life, relief is more frequently experienced after counterfactual
precursors than purely temporal precursors. Above, we speculated that recollections of
situations in which an unpleasant experience came to an end may be subject to more rapid
decay over time, consistent with the fading affect bias showing that memory for unpleasant
events tends to grow substantially less negative (i.e., closer to neutral) with the passage of
time. Contrary to this speculation, when participants were explicitly asked about ease of
retrieval, results from Study 2 indicate that participants found all recent instances of relief,
irrespective of their antecedents, equally easy to retrieve.
The only two inconsistencies observed in the results from Studies 1 and 2 related to the
ratings of relief intensity and the frequency of post-event thought. Although in Study 1 relief
experiences preceded by both temporal and counterfactual antecedents were judged to be
significantly more intense than relief experiences occasioned only by one or the other
precursor, this effect was not significant in Study 2. The pattern reversed in the context of
post-event mental revisiting with significant differences emerging only in the second study.
These discrepancies could be potentially attributed to the change in the timescale of the
question. When aggregated across all three categories of precursors, ratings of relief intensity
were higher for events that occurred in the more distant (Study 1, M= 87.86, SD = 13.08)
rather than more immediate past (Study 2, M= 77.65, SD = 18.35). This most likely
reflects the fact that participants were considerably less likely to have experienced a
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 40
relief-inducing event of high personal significance over the previous week compared to over
their whole lifespans. Participants also seemed to draw on somewhat different life domains,
depending on the time frame of the question. In Study 1 in which participants could draw
from the whole lifespan, episodes were mostly concerned with matters related to health,
education, and parenting. Although health-related instances were also frequently reported in
Study 2, the highest proportion of descriptions pertained to work-related events (e.g.,
completing difficult tasks, meeting tight deadlines, or being able to leave work earlier than
expected), which is perhaps not unexpected given that relatively few people will experience
significant health events over the past week whereas many will be dealing with work-related
issues.
Study 3: Experiences of Counterfactual Relief
The results of Studies 1 and 2 suggest that instances of ‘purely’ temporal relief are
spontaneously recalled relatively rarely. The results additionally suggest that relief
experiences are twice as likely to be associated with ‘purely’ counterfactual precursors as
with ‘purely’ temporal precursors. This is a striking finding given that one account of relief
(Deutsch et al., 2015) holds that all instances of relief with counterfactual precursors will also
have a temporal precursor in the form of the cessation of an ongoing fear or anxiety about
an outcome. If people’s experiences align with Deutsch et al.’s (2015) characterization of
relief, we ought not to have found any instances of relief with ‘purely’ counterfactual
precursors. On the face of it, though, the results of Studies 1 and 2 suggest that instances of
experienced relief with purely counterfactual precursors do occur. However, it is important
to note that the experience description task we used in Studies 1 and 2 did not directly ask
about the experience of anxiety or worry prior to outcomes being known. Instead,
participants were asked about an unpleasant event that had ended. Although this question
allows us to test hypotheses about relief experiences arising from task completion or the end
of unpleasant episodes, it may not permit direct testing of hypotheses about the role of
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 41
anxiety. In particular, participants may experience such anxiety but may be unclear as to its
role in their relief experiences or simply fail to spontaneously mention it. This might lead to
descriptions and categorizations of relief experiences that omit anxiety and its cessation as a
precursor and focus instead on the counterfactual outcome that was avoided.
In Study 3, we used a more focused questionnaire method which required participants
to generate descriptions of everyday episodes of relief, but solely focused on episodes of relief
that had a counterfactual precursor. Participants were first asked to describe a time in their
life when they felt the emotion of relief upon realizing that an outcome could have been
worse (i.e., relief that had a counterfactual precursor), and then to report whether or not that
experience of relief was preceded by anxiety about a potential negative outcome. By asking
participants explicitly to report on whether they had experienced a period of anxiety before
their experience of relief, we sought to establish how frequently participants spontaneously
recall instances of relief with ‘purely’ (i.e., only) counterfactual precursors that did not
include such a period. Participants also made judgments both about the aversiveness of the
potentially negative outcomes and the strength of their associated emotions. If an initial
period of anxiety does typically play a causal role in episodes of relief, levels of relief might
be expected to be predicted by the level of the initial anxiety (potentially over and above the
aversiveness of the negative outcome that was avoided if we assume that anxiety is related to
both the aversiveness and the perceived likelihood of the undesired event). Establishing this
would be indicative of such a causal role, even if participants do not reliably focus on the
cessation of anxiety when making judgments about the precursors of their relief experiences.
Method
Participants. Native English-speaking adults residing in the United Kingdom were
recruited via Prolific (https://www.prolific.co/). A total of 247 participants (72.87% female,
Mage
= 32.99 years,
SDage
= 10.32, 55.47% reported having higher education) were given a
general description of counterfactual relief and then asked to generate an example of such
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 42
relief. For additional demographic information see supplementary materials. The required
sample size of 212 to achieve 95% power in regression models was estimated using G*Power
3.1 (Faul et al., 2007) assuming a small effect size (f2= .1) and αlevel of .01.
Materials and Procedure. Data were collected using Qualtrics (Qualtrics, 2019).
The survey began with standard demographic questions about age, gender, and
qualifications. Participants were then asked to describe a time in their life when they felt the
emotion of relief because something bad that could have happened did not happen and to
rate the intensity of that emotion on a scale ranging from a little to a lot (all scaled
responses ranged from 0 to 100). Next, after having explained the nature of the undesired
counterfactual outcome (i.e., the bad thing that could have happened), participants rated its
aversiveness (i.e., 0 = not bad at all, 100 = very bad) and stated whether or not they were
thinking about this undesirable outcome prior to experiencing relief. Those participants who
confirmed that they were thinking about the unwelcome counterfactual outcome before they
felt relief were additionally asked to say whether they also felt anxious, worried, or scared at
the anticipation of the bad thing possibly happening and, if so, to judge how strongly they
felt that way on a scale anchored a little to the left and a lot to the right. Lastly,
participants were instructed to say whether the feeling of anxiety, stress, or worry stopped
completely after they learned that the undesired counterfactual outcome was avoided. Those
participants who indicated that the feeling of anxiety persisted even after they learned that
the undesired outcome did not materialize were also asked to rate the intensity of those
feelings (scale ranging from a little to a lot).
Results
No participant was unable to report an example of an episode of relief that had a
counterfactual precursor. However, the vast majority of participants (94.74%, n= 234)
answered in the affirmative when explicitly asked if they had anticipated the undesired but
avoided counterfactual outcome. Of that set of participants, 98.29% (n= 230) said that they
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 43
felt worried, anxious, or fearful about the negative counterfactual outcome prior to
experiencing relief. The average rating of worry intensity prior to learning the outcome was
88.05 (max = 100; SD = 14.97), i.e., relatively high. A further 66.96% (n= 154) of these
participants indicated that the worry stopped completely once they learned the actual
outcome. Those who stated that they continued to experience feelings of anxiety even after
they learned that the negative outcome had been avoided, gave an average post-outcome
worry rating of 50.82 (SD = 26.85). The levels of anxiety experienced before and after the
outcome was known differed significantly (
MD
= 39
.
29, 95% CI [33
.
11
,
45
.
47],
t
(75) = 12
.
67,
p<.
001,
BF10
= 1
.
92
×
10
17
). Thus, most instances of relief reported by people to have had
a counterfactual precursor did indeed involve an initial period of relatively high anxiety, with
this anxiety either dissipating entirely or reducing substantially after learning the outcome
had been avoided, consistent with Deutsch et al.’s (2015) suggestion that cessation of fear is
the trigger for relief under these circumstances. Nevertheless, around 5% of instances of relief
that were described in this study appeared to have purely counterfactual precursors (i.e., the
respondents had not anticipated the counterfactual outcome ahead of time).
Table 2
Correlations between relief intensity, outcome aversiveness,
and the levels of anxiety experienced before and after the
outcome was known.
1 2 3 M S D
1. Relief intensity - 89.92 12.92
2. Outcome aversiveness .50*** - 87.60 17.99
3. Pre-outcome worry .67*** .64*** - 88.05 14.97
4. Post-outcome worry .26* .27* .24* 50.82 26.85
Note. * p < 0.05; ** p < 0.01; *** p < 0.001
Correlation coefficients indicated that relief intensity (M= 89.92, SD = 12.92) was
associated with outcome aversiveness (
M
= 87.60,
SD
= 17.99) and levels of both pre- and
post-outcome anxiety (Table 2). A regression analysis (n= 230) further established that
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 44
outcome aversiveness was a significant predictor of the level of anxiety experienced before
the outcome was known (b= 0.53, 95% CI [0.45,0.62],t(228) = 12.45,p<.001,
BF01
= 6
.
74
×
10
25
; model fit:
R2
=
.
40, 90% CI [0
.
32
,
0
.
48],
F
(1
,
228) = 155
.
04,
p<.
001).
Next, a regression analysis was conducted to determine the unique impact of outcome
aversiveness and pre-outcome anxiety on reported relief intensity (Table 3), with outcome
aversiveness entered into the model in the first step and pre-outcome worry added in the
second step. In Step 1, outcome aversiveness accounted for 24% of the variance in relief
intensity (p < .001) and was a significant positive predictor of the reported strength of the
emotion. Step 2 accounted for 45% of the variance and, importantly, significantly increased
the predictive power of the model (R2= .213, 95% CI [.09, .35]). At Step 2, outcome
aversiveness was no longer a significant predictor of relief intensity.
Table 3
Dependent variable: relief intensity ratings
Predictor b b 95% CI β β 95% CI Fit
(Intercept) 59.81** [47.57, 70.85]
Outcome aversiveness 0.35** [0.23, 0.48] 0.49 [0.36, 0.61]
R2 = .237**
95% CI[.13,.37]
(Intercept) 38.96** [25.35, 51.69]
Outcome aversiveness 0.08 [-0.06, 0.21] 0.11 [-0.08, 0.30]
Worry 0.51** [0.32, 0.69] 0.60 [0.39, 0.77]
R2 = .449**
95% CI[.31,.61]
Note. A significant b-weight indicates the beta-weight is also significant. b
represents unstandardized regression weights. βindicates the standardized
regression weights. * indicates p < .05. ** indicates p < .01.
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 45
Discussion
Two key findings emerged from Study 3. The first is that, when asked to provide an
example of an episode of relief that had a counterfactual precursor, the vast majority of
participants called to mind a situation in which the emotion of relief followed an initial
unpleasant experience that was caused by the anticipation of a negative event that
subsequently did not transpire. Under these task instructions, only a small number of
participants (around 5%) described an episode of relief with what could be confidently
termed a ‘purely’ counterfactual precursor. Instead, when explicitly prompted, the vast
majority of participants reported an initial period of anxiety or worry that then dissipated or
substantially reduced on learning that their fears had not been realized.
This result is important in interpreting the findings of Studies 1 and 2. In those studies,
participants were not explicitly asked whether their experience of relief was associated with
the reduction of anxiety; rather, they were asked about whether their experience was related
to the ending of an unpleasant event, the avoidance of a bad outcome, or both. Although
‘both’ responses were common, at least 40% of the time people judged their experience as
solely related to the avoidance of a bad outcome. However, the findings of Study 3 strongly
suggest that many of these cases of ‘pure’ counterfactual relief will have been preceded by a
period of anxiety or worry. This means that in most instances in Studies 1 and 2 in which
people attributed their relief solely to avoiding a bad outcome, they either did not consider
the reduction of anxiety to fit the description of ‘the ending of an unpleasant event’, or they
did not view it to be related to their experience of relief. Regardless of whichever of these
interpretations is correct, the findings of Study 3 indicate that, if we allow the cessation of
anxiety to be considered as the ending of an unpleasant event, the vast majority of relief
experiences with counterfactual precursors described in Studies 1 and 2 were hybrid.
The second finding of note from Study 3 was that negative affect experienced prior to
the outcome being known was predictive of reported relief intensity over and above the level
of aversiveness of the undesired outcome. This result suggests that the cessation or reduction
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 46
of anxiety does indeed play a causal role in relief experiences, even if participants do not
always focus on this role (as the results of Studies 1 and 2 suggest). Moreover, it is
consistent with the idea put forward by Ortony et al. (1990) that there are three variables
that affect relief intensity: (i) the intensity of the attendant fear emotion, (ii) the effort
expended in trying to prevent the negative event, (iii) and the degree to which the negative
event is realized. The findings of Study 3 provide clear evidence for the first of the variables
identified by Ortony et al. (1990). That outcome aversiveness only had an indirect effect on
intensity of relief is also in line with a growing body of research showing that awaiting
uncertain news can be more distressing than actually receiving the bad news one fears (e.g.,
Bolvin & Lancastle, 2010; Poole, 1997; Sweeny & Falkenstein, 2015).
Study 4: Experiences of Post-Exam Relief
Previously, we speculated that people’s memory for unpleasant events tends to grow
substantially less negative (i.e., closer to neutral) with the passage of time, and this might
explain why experiences of relief with purely temporal precursors may be reported relatively
infrequently. However, results from Study 2 indicated that even when participants were
specifically asked to report episodes of relief from the previous week, descriptions of relief
episodes with purely temporal precursors remained relatively rare compared to those that
had a counterfactual precursor (< 20% of the total). Moreover, participants reported finding
all recent instances of relief, irrespective of their antecedents, equally easy to retrieve from
memory.
In Study 4, we adopted a different approach to examining experiences of relief with a
purely temporal precursor. Our first aim was to assess people’s attribution of relief to
temporal and/or counterfactual precursors in a real-life situation in which, a priori, relief
would be expected to have a strong temporal precursor, i.e., where there is a clear delineated
cessation of an experience that most people would find unpleasant. If people again relatively
rarely report episodes of relief with a purely temporal precursor, this might indicate either
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 47
that our self-report measure of relief precursor attribution is not sensitive, or that people
rarely attribute relief episodes to purely temporal precursors. We note that our findings so
far already indicate that some degree of caution must be applied to self-report attributions:
In Studies 1 and 2 participants frequently stated that their experience of relief had a purely
counterfactual precursor, whereas, using a more focused approach in Study 3, we found
evidence suggesting that relief with purely counterfactual precursors does occur but is
spontaneously remembered relatively rarely.
The second aim of Study 4 was to examine whether people’s attribution of relief to
either temporal or counterfactual precursors (or both) varies as a function of temporal
distance from the relief-inducing event. One possible explanation for the finding that < 20%
of episodes of relief in Studies 1 and 2 were reported as having purely temporal precursors is
that, although people might be likely to attribute relief purely to the cessation of an
unpleasant experience immediately after the experience ends, after relatively short time
scales they tend to switch their attribution of the original relief experience towards a
counterfactual. For example, it could be that immediately after an exam, people may feel
relief which they might express along the lines of ‘Thank goodness that’s over’ whereas after
time has elapsed and they have reflected on how the exam went, they may also have
thoughts along the lines of ‘That could have gone worse. If asked about the precursor of
their original relief experience, they may then (retrospectively) at least partially attribute it
to a counterfactual precursor.
In Study 4, we approached first- and second-year university undergraduates at the end
of the exam period and asked them how they felt as they left the exam hall after having
taken their final exam of that year’s exam period. Our choice of event was motivated by
previous research findings demonstrating that relief was the emotion most frequently
reported after taking an exam (Pekrun et al., 2004; e.g., Pekrun et al., 2011; Reeve et al.,
2014) which is generally considered to be a source of stress and anxiety for most students.
Students were asked to report on their emotions, and explain any relief they felt in terms of
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 48
either temporal or counterfactual precursors. Crucially, they either answered these questions
in person immediately after they left the exam hall (No-delay condition), or online after a
variable delay (Delay condition).
Method
Participants. First- and second-year undergraduates who completed their
end-of-year exams between May and July 2019 were invited to take part. One group of
participants (consisting only of students taking exams at the university of the first author)
participants in the No-delay condition was approached in person. A second group of
participants participants in the Delay condition (consisting of students studying at
three different universities to which authors are affiliated) was contacted via email. Of 585
students who participated in the study, 236 (53.81% female; Mage = 20.46 years, SDage =
3.13) were approached outside of exam halls and completed the pen-and-paper version of the
survey (No-delay condition); the remaining 349 (52.44% female; Mage = 19.99 years, SDage
= 2.62) were contacted via email and filled in an online version of the survey using Qualtrics
(Delay condition). Over 90% of participants reported English as their first language.
Additional demographic information can be found in the supplement. As a token of
appreciation, participants exiting exam halls were offered snacks. Students who completed
the online survey had an opportunity to enter a prize draw for a voucher worth 100 UK
pounds.
Materials and procedure. In the first instance, all participants answered
questions about age, gender, and native language, and confirmed the date of their final exam.
Next, all students were instructed to think about their final exam and rate the extent to
which each of the following emotion words relieved, regretful, confident, nervous
described how they felt as they left the exam hall. Additional words (i.e., regretful, confident,
nervous) were included to ensure that participants did not simply indicate that they felt
relief by default. Ratings were given on four separate 100-point scales (one scale per emotion
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 49
word) anchored not at all to the left and extremely to the right. The words were presented in
a counterbalanced order in the pen-and-paper survey and in a fully randomized order in the
web-based survey. If participants reported that they were feeling relieved as they left the
exam hall, they were additionally asked to indicate whether they felt relieved because: their
exam was over (categorized as temporal precursor), their exam could have gone worse
(categorized as counterfactual precursor), their exam was over and it could have gone worse
(categorized as hybrid precursor), or because of something else (categorized as an event
unrelated to the final exam and excluded from analysis). Printed surveys were handed out
and collected by the experimenters outside of exam halls at the university of the first author.
Links to online surveys were distributed via email in the afternoon on the day of the final
exam or either 7 or 14 days later.2The online survey that was distributed at least 7 days
after the exam contained additional questions concerning the frequency of post-exam
thought and both upward and downward counterfactual thinking rated using 100-point
scales; these data are reported only in the supplement for reasons of space. Both versions of
the survey took around 5 minutes to complete. No students who completed the online
version of the task had received their exam results in advance of completing the
questionnaire and no students were included in both the No-delay and the Delay conditions.
Results and Discussion
We expected the students who completed the online version of the task (i.e., Delay
condition) to complete the survey within 48 hours from receiving the email invitation to take
part in the study. However, in practice, the participants completed the survey at varying
intervals from receiving the email (see Figure S7 in the supplement) and thus at varying
intervals from completing the final exam itself. We originally sought to establish whether the
frequency with which students reported experiencing relief preceded by purely temporal
precursors varied as a function of time (0-1 days after the event vs 1-2 weeks after the event),
2In practice, the online survey was completed between 0 and 36 days after the exam (see Figure S5 in the
supplement for a full distribution).
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 50
but this proved not to be possible given the variable intervals of participant completion of
the online survey. Instead, we focus only on comparing the No-delay and Delay versions of
the survey (i.e., probing relief minutes after the event versus after a delay lasting hours and
days). This approach is justified because the pattern of findings is identical irrespective of
the analysis employed. See the supplementary materials for additional details.
0
25
50
75
100
Confident Nervous Regretful Relieved
No−delay condition
0
25
50
75
100
Confident Nervous Regretful Relieved
Delay condition
Figure 7 . Average intensity of confidence, nervousness, regret, and relief experienced following
the final exam. Points are individual scores with split-half violin illustrating distribution;
black lines indicate median; the lower and upper hinges correspond to the first and third
quartiles; whiskers depict maximum and minimum values within 1.5 times the interquartile
range.
Figure 7 depicts the intensity ratings for the four named emotions split by condition
(No-delay vs Delay). It can be seen from the figure that the emotion with the rating of
highest intensity was relief, in both versions of the survey, confirming the intuition that the
ending of a final exam is a good scenario in which to measure relief. Figure 8 shows
participants’ judgments of the antecedents of relief (hybrid, counterfactual, and temporal)
split by condition. Comparing the antecedents of relief in the No-delay and Delay conditions,
a Chi-square test of goodness of fit indicated that the frequency of reports did not vary
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 51
significantly as a function of time, p= .343. The vast majority of participants reported
feeling relieved either because the exam was over (purely temporal precursor), or because the
exam was over and it could have been worse (hybrid precursor) and the relative proportions
of these responses did not change significantly over time.
41%
4%
55%
0%
20%
40%
Hybrid Counterfactual Temporal
N = 236
No−delay condition
44.4%
2.3%
53.3%
0%
20%
40%
Hybrid Counterfactual Temporal
N = 349
Delay condition
Figure 8 . The percentage of instances of relief reported in Study 4, split by the type of relief
precursor.
The findings of this study establish two things. First, people do indeed report relief as
having a purely temporal precursor in the sort of scenario in which this might reasonably be
expected to occur (e.g., Pekrun et al., 2004, 2011; Reeve et al., 2014), suggesting that in the
right circumstances, in our self-report measure, people can and will frequently causally
attribute their relief in this way. Second, the pattern of findings was the same regardless of
whether or not there was a delay between leaving the exam hall and completing the survey,
suggesting that the attributions about the cause of relief remain stable over time, at least
over the period of time studied. This result suggests that the low rates of relief experiences
reported to have purely temporal precursors observed in Study 2 are not due to people
making different retrospective attributions about the source of their relief as time passes (i.e.,
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 52
switching from attribution to a purely temporal precursor to a precursor that has a
counterfactual component).
General Discussion
The four large studies reported provide a detailed empirical investigation of everyday
episodes of relief. These studies yielded a number of novel findings, which, taken together,
provide an important basis for considering the characteristics of experiences of relief. First,
there are grounds for distinguishing between temporal and counterfactual precursors to relief.
Studies 1 and 2 provided evidence that people are prepared to distinguish between purely
counterfactual and purely temporal antecedents to experiences of relief. Although people
attributed relief to purely temporal antecedents relatively rarely in those studies, Study 4
provided good evidence that people are willing to use the term relief to describe experiences
that have ‘purely’ temporal precursors. However, and importantly, viewed together, the
findings of Studies 1-3 suggest that the prototypical relief episode is associated with both
these precursors, i.e., a combination of the ending of an unpleasant experience, which often
involves the cessation of fear or anxiety, plus a counterfactual comparison with a potentially
negative outcome that did not in fact happen.
Second, our results reveal distinctive relations between relief and decision making
which suggest that relief should not be regarded as simply the positively valenced
counterpart of regret. It is true that, as shown in Studies 1 and 2, people report that relief
that has a counterfactual precursor is strongly associated with downward counterfactual
thought; in this sense relief appropriately contrasts with regret, which has a well-established
link with upward counterfactual thought (e.g., Mandel, 2003; Zeelenberg, Van Dijk, Van der
Pligt, et al., 1998). However, unlike regret, people do not report that the relief experienced
in these circumstances is typically a result of their own decisions. In line with this, when
asked to generate counterfactuals about how the situation might have turned out worse
(Studies 1 and 2), people typically did not focus on their own actions, whereas in similar
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 53
tasks studying regret people will frequently focus on what they could have done differently
(e.g., Gilovich & Medvec, 1995; Kahneman, 2014; Landman et al., 1995). Finally, Studies 1
and 2 provided preliminary evidence that experiencing relief has a beneficial effect on
people’s choices and decisions, although we note that the means by which this occurs are not
clear given that relief does not seem to straightforwardly serve to either reinforce or devalue
one’s own previous choices.
To what extent do theoretical accounts of relief map on to the characteristics of
everyday episodes of relief?
In the introduction to this paper, we outlined three accounts of relief, each of which
made a related but different distinction between ‘types’ of relief. Although we did not aim to
adjudicate between these accounts, the empirical questions that structured our studies were
informed by these accounts, particularly in terms of considering precursors of everyday relief
experiences. Given this, we now consider the extent to which these accounts appear to map
on to the characteristics of relief episodes described by participants.
In discussing relief that has a temporal precursor, Sweeny and Vohs (2012) focused on
what they term ‘task completion’ relief. Our findings suggest people use the term ‘relief to
refer to instances of emotion following the ending of variety of types of unpleasant events,
rather than solely the completion of an unpleasant task. It is true that in Studies 1 and 2,
relief reported to have a purely temporal precursor was relatively more likely to be
attributed to a decision that the experiencer themselves had made than relief that had a
counterfactual antecedent. Nevertheless, there were episodes that were attributed either to
another person’s decision, or no decision maker at all; in these instances episodes did not
typically involve the participant completing a task (e.g., relief experienced following recovery
from an illness). Moreover, the results of Study 3 suggest that the ‘temporal’ component of
precursors in hybrid cases is not one of task completion, but of cessation of anxiety or fear.
In this latter respect, the features of people’s self-reported episodes of relief seem to
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 54
map more closely to Deutsch et al.’s (2015) characterization of two types of relief. These
authors distinguished between stopping and prevention relief, with prevention relief
necessarily having a particular type of temporal component, specifically the cessation of
anxiety. Thus, what Deutsch et al. (2015) refer to as prevention relief could potentially be
mapped onto the instances of relief in our studies with hybrid precursors, and stopping relief
onto those with purely temporal precursors. These authors also leave open the possibility
that relief can occur either because of the experiencer’s actions or because of circumstances
outside of the experiencer’s control. That is, they distinguish between active and passive
relief, with active relief resulting from the experiencer acting in such a way to avoid or cease
a negative experience and passive relief being independent of the experiencer’s actions; note
that they view this distinction to be orthogonal to the stopping/prevention distinction. That
relief can occur in either active or passive circumstances is at least compatible with the
findings of Studies 1 and 2, which indicate that relief can be triggered following the
experiencer’s own actions, but also frequently occurs for other reasons. As we have pointed
out, this is an important sense in which everyday episodes of relief differ from regret, which
psychologists have closely associated with personal responsibility (e.g., Habib et al., 2012,
2015; Mellers et al., 1999; Weisberg & Beck, 2012).
Put together, the findings of Studies 1-3 suggest that Deutsch et al.’s (2015) description
of prevention relief aligns with what appears to be, based on people’s descriptions of
everyday relief episodes, the prototypical precursor of relief: a hybrid precursor that involves
a period of unpleasant anxiety that ceases or at least diminishes on learning that a feared
outcome has been avoided. However, at the center of Deutsch et al.’s (2015) characterization
of relief is the idea that it is a positive emotion underpinned by opponent processes that are
triggered either because of the cessation of fear or by the cessation of a negative experience.
Thus, their account does not predict that there will be instances of relief with purely
counterfactual precursors. While our findings suggest that such cases are spontaneously
reported very rarely, nevertheless a small proportion of participants in Study 3 were able to
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 55
describe such instances. Such instances are deserving of additional study as they have the
potential to help discriminate between Deutsch et al.’s (2015) and Hoerl’s (2015) accounts.
In particular, Hoerl’s account, which proposes that temporal and counterfactual relief can be
wholly distinct, appears to predict instances of relief with purely counterfactual precursors.
Our findings indicate that the distinction between ‘purely’ temporal, ‘purely’
counterfactual, or hybrid precursors of relief is a useful one. Our methodology was not,
though, designed to address questions about whether relief should be thought of as a single
‘basic’ emotion, as having a specific neural signature or specific perceptual features, or
whether it is more meaningful to talk about two ‘types’ of relief. As one of the most central
debates in the history of emotion research is over how, or whether, to distinguish between
discrete emotions (Ekman, 1992; Izard, 1991; Lazarus, 1991; Roseman et al., 1994; Tangney
et al., 1996; see Feldman Barrett & Westlin, 2021, for a recent discussion), we would be very
cautious in arguing that there are two distinct types of emotion in play when people report
feeling relief in response to different types of antecedents. We note that, in the regret
literature, empirical attempts to distinguish between discrete emotions (e.g., regret and guilt)
typically involve examining a wide variety of dimensions including associated thoughts,
attributions, action tendencies, motivational characteristics, and affective components (e.g.,
Buchanan et al., 2016; Zeelenberg et al., 2008; Zeelenberg & Breugelmans, 2008). It was
beyond the scope of our study to measure all of these dimensions, given that its aim was not
to establish whether relief is a discrete emotion. However, we did measure some of these
variables for other purposes namely, to examine whether experiences of relief have
features suggesting this emotion is best conceived of as the antonym of regret most
notably the relation with counterfactual thought and whether people report that the
experience had an impact on subsequent choices or decisions. We now turn to considering
these aspects of the data.
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 56
Relief, counterfactual thought, and decision making
Counterfactual thoughts are known to be especially likely to arise following a so-called
near miss i.e., when an alternative outcome has been narrowly avoided (e.g., Markman &
Tetlock, 2000; Roese, 1997; Teigen, 1995). By contrast, Sweeny and Vohs (2012) suggest that
counterfactual thoughts tend not to be elicited when a negative state is endured rather than
avoided, as in the case of relief with a purely temporal precursor. Thus, our intuition before
carrying out our studies was that levels of self-reported thought about what might have been
would be more strongly associated with relief described as having a counterfactual rather
than a purely temporal precursor. This was not what we found: rather, what differed as a
function of precursor was whether downward counterfactual thought was more frequent than
upward counterfactual thought. More specifically, people reported that episodes of relief
involving a counterfactual component were associated with higher proportions of downward
comparisons (i.e., contemplating how things might have turned out worse than they did),
whilst episodes involving only temporal precursors were associated with comparable rates of
downward and upward counterfactual thoughts.
One potential interpretation of this finding is that counterfactual thoughts play
different roles with regard to the cognitive underpinnings of relief. Downward counterfactual
thoughts may typically play a causal role in cases of relief with counterfactual precursors, i.e.,
entertaining the counterfactual outcome and evaluatively comparing it with the actual
outcome may be a crucial part of the process that yields the emotion itself. Indeed, in the
absence of any initial period of fear or anxiety, as is the case with relief with purely
counterfactual precursors, it is difficult to see what other process could underpin the
experience. In this specific respect, relief with counterfactual precursors may resemble regret,
for which entertaining counterfactuals (in the case of regret, upwards counterfactuals) and
comparing them to actual outcomes is assumed to underpin the emotion itself (e.g., Beck et
al., 2011, 2014; Miller & Taylor, 2014). However, it is possible that counterfactual thoughts
associated with cases of relief with purely temporal precursors may not play a causal role in
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 57
the processes underpinning the emotion itself, and instead may occur simply as a
consequence of experiencing a life event with emotional significance, with both upward and
downward counterfactual thoughts occurring equally often. Although it is well established
that counterfactual thought might be particularly likely to be triggered in certain scenarios
(McEleney & Byrne, 2006; Roese, 1997; Roese & Olson, 1995), it also appears to be
ubiquitous in everyday life (Byrne, 2007; Markman et al., 1993; Petrocelli et al., 2011),
which may in itself be sufficient to explain the counterfactual thinking reported in the cases
in which relief had purely temporal precursors. As mentioned in the Discussion of Study 1, it
could also be the case that in the case of relief with purely temporal precursors, participants
felt relief that an unpleasant experience was over, but, in addition, a degree of regret that
they had made decisions that resulted in the unpleasant experience in the first instance,
based on upwards counterfactuals (e.g., ‘I was relieved to have finished root canal surgery,
but if only I had looked after my teeth better in the first place I could have avoided it.’).
When thinking about what our results reveal with respect to the relationship between
relief and decision making, it is helpful to consider conclusions which have been drawn about
relations between regret and decision making. It has been argued that regret plays a
distinctive role in decision making because of two key properties: (i) its association with
upward counterfactual thought and (ii) the fact that it typically occurs in scenarios in which
the person experiencing regret was responsible for the decision that subsequently led to regret
(Connolly & Zeelenberg, 2002; Tsiros & Mittal, 2000; Zeelenberg, Van Dijk, Van der Pligt, et
al., 1998). Thus, in the context of regret, counterfactual thoughts are assumed to play a role
in instructing future behavior and improving performance (e.g., Epstude & Roese, 2008;
Miller & Taylor, 2014; Roese, 1997; Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2007) such that the experience of
regret helps ensure that one’s own costly mistakes are not repeated. If relief were simply the
positively valenced counterpart of regret in terms of its relation with counterfactual thought
and decision making, it would be expected to have a similar profile to be associated with
downward counterfactual thought, to typically occur in scenarios in which the person
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 58
experiencing relief was responsible for a decision, and to reinforce that previous decision
because it yielded a good outcome. However, the descriptions and judgments that people
made about their everyday episodes of relief do not map on to such a picture of relief. First,
as we have already discussed, instances of relief with purely temporal precursors do not seem
to be specifically associated with downward counterfactual thought. Second, and more
importantly, even though people’s judgments suggest that there are clear associations
between relief and downward counterfactual thought in some instances (i.e., in the case of
relief with purely counterfactual or hybrid precursors), data from Studies 1 and 2 strongly
indicate that relief in such circumstances is typically not associated with events or decisions
the person experiencing relief felt responsible for. Consistent with this, in both those studies,
when asked to generate statements about how things might have been worse, participants
did not typically focus on their own actions. All of these findings suggest that if relief has a
link with decision making, such a link cannot be characterized in analogous ways to the link
with decision making in the case of regret. Nevertheless, participants did typically report
that the episode of relief had an impact on their subsequent choices, and the overwhelming
majority of impact statements were positive and indicated that participants believed that
they had made constructive behavioral changes as a result of experiencing relief.
An important reason for examining the relation between relief and decision making are
suggestions regarding a special functional role of relief with a purely temporal precursor:
that anticipating such relief may serve to motivate people to undergo aversive but beneficial
experiences (Hoerl, 2015; Sweeny & Vohs, 2012). There was little in our findings to support
this suggestion: coding of participants’ descriptions of the effects of relief on choice indicated
that participants relatively rarely (~10% of the time) reported that experiencing relief made
it more likely that they would undergo further unpleasant but beneficial tasks in the future,
and when such reports did occur they were not specifically associated with relief with purely
temporal precursors. However, we acknowledge that more fully characterizing any functional
role for relief with regard to decision making will require studying this emotion more closely
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 59
in decision-making contexts whilst considering other emotions that may coincide with the
experience of relief. For example, completing a difficult task may, in addition to relief, elicit
a feeling of pride, given that the latter emotion has been associated with motivation to
persevere with effortful and unpleasant tasks (e.g., Williams & DeSteno, 2008). We also note
that although it has been suggested that anticipating relief has a functional (i.e., adaptive)
role, it has also been characterized as playing a role in motivating behaviors generally viewed
to be negative ones, such as addictive, phobic, and self-destructive behaviors (e.g., Franklin
et al., 2010; Lohr et al., 2007; R. C. O’Connor et al., 2009; Shead & Hodgins, 2009). Taken
together with the findings of the current study, such considerations suggest that, in contrast
with the case of regret where there is an existing coherent characterization of the functional
role of regret based on what is known about its typical features, it may not be
straightforward to characterize any general functional role of the set of experiences that
people refer to as relief experiences.
Future research directions
Our findings raise further questions about the nature of relief that will require careful
experimentation to address. Future research should endeavor to examine whether relief with
a hybrid precursor tends to be less or more intense than relief with a purely temporal
precursor, matching for the negative experience either avoided or stopped. More research also
needs to be undertaken before the association between relief and decision making is more
clearly understood. In the first instance, studies should establish whether counterfactual
relief reinforces a choice or leads to risk aversion, and test Hoerl’s (2015) hypothesis that the
anticipation of temporal relief functions to increase people’s willingness to undergo aversive
but ultimately beneficial experiences in the future. Studies might also examine purely
counterfactual relief in more detail to establish whether it is commonly experienced, even if
not spontaneously recalled by participants in our studies. Finally, our results raise interesting
questions about the role played by uncertainty in the experience of relief and future work
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 60
might seek to determine, for example, whether and when the resolution of uncertainty,
independent of outcome desirability, is sufficient to occasion the experience of temporal relief.
Conclusion
The findings of the large studies reported here provide an initial step towards a better
understanding of everyday instances of relief, and as such begin to fill a striking gap in our
psychological knowledge about this commonly-experienced emotion. The results indicate that
it is useful to maintain a distinction between two types of precursors to relief: counterfactual
and temporal. Nevertheless, prototypical instances of relief seem to involve a combination of
both precursors where the temporal element involves the ending of (or reduction in) fear or
anxiety. Our findings also strongly indicate that relief, even when it has purely
counterfactual precursors, is not best conceptualized as the antonym of regret. Despite the
differences we have highlighted between features of regret and relief, we hope that the current
studies will provide a springboard for more extensive study of relief in a manner similar to
that provided by influential studies of everyday regret (Gilovich & Medvec, 1994, 1995).
RELIEF IN EVERYDAY LIFE 61
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