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Disappointment is an emotional state, the feeling of dissatisfaction that follows the failure of expectations to manifest. Similar to regret, it differs in that the individual feeling regret focuses primarily on personal choices contributing to a poor outcome, while the individual feeling disappointment focuses on outcome.[1] It is a source of psychological stress.[2] The study of disappointment—its causes, impact and the degree to which individual decisions are motivated by a desire to avoid it—is a focus in the field of decision analysis,[1][3] as disappointment is one of two primary emotions involved in decision-making.[4]

Disappoint is traced to the Middle English disappointen by way of the Old French desapointer. In literal meaning, it is to remove from office.[5] Its use in the sense of general frustration traces to the late 15th century, and it first appears recorded in English as an emotional state of dejection in the middle 18th century.[6]


Disappointment is a subjective response related to the anticipated rewards.[1] The psychological results of disappointment vary greatly among individuals; while some recover quickly, others mire in frustration or blame or become depressed.[2] A 2003 study of young children with parental background of childhood onset depression found that there may be a genetic predisposition to slow recovery following disappointment.[7] While not every person responds to disappointment by becoming depressed, depression can (in the self psychology school of psychoanalytic theory) almost always be seen as secondary to disappointment/frustration.[8]

Disappointment, and an inability to prepare for it, has also been hypothesized as the source of occasional immune system compromise in optimists.[9] While optimists by and large exhibit better health,[10] they may alternatively exhibit less immunity when under prolonged or uncontrollable stress, a phenomenon which researchers have attributed to the "disappointment effect".[9] The "disappointment effect" posits that optimists do not utilize "emotional cushioning" to prepare for disappointment and hence are less able to deal with it when they experience it.[10][11] This disappointment effect has been challenged since the mid-1990s by researcher Suzanne C. Segerstrom, who has published, alone and in accord, several articles evaluating its plausibility. Her findings suggest that, rather than being unable to deal with disappointment, optimists are more likely to actively tackle their problems and experience some immunity compromise as a result.[12]

In 1994, psychotherapist Ian Craib published the book The Importance of Disappointment, in which he drew on the works of Melanie Klein and Sigmund Freud in advancing the theory that disappointment-avoidant cultures—particularly therapy culture—provides false expectations of perfection in life and prevents people from achieving a healthy self-identity.[13] Craib offered as two examples litigious victims of medical mistakes, who once would have accepted accidents as a course of life, and people suffering grief following the death of a loved one who, he said, are provided a false stage model of recovery that is more designed to comfort bereavement therapists than the bereaved.[14] In a 2004 article, the journal Psychology Today recommended handling disappointment through concrete steps including accepting that setbacks are normal, setting realistic goals, planning subsequent moves, thinking about positive role models, seeking support and tackling tasks by stages rather than focusing on the big picture.[2]

Disappointment theoryEdit

Disappointment theory, pioneered in the mid-1980s by David E. Bell with further development by Graham Loomes and Robert Sugden,[15] revolves around the notion that people contemplating risks are disappointed when the outcome of the risk is not evaluated as positively as the expected outcome.[16] Disappointment theory has been utilized in examining such diverse decision-making processes as return migration, taxpayer compliance and customer willingness to pay.[17]

Disappointed individuals focus on "upward counterfactuals"—alternative outcomes that would have been better than the one actually experienced—to the point that even positive outcomes may result in disappointment.[18] One example, supplied by Bell, concerns a lottery win of $10,000.00, an event which will theoretically be perceived more positively if that amount represents the highest possible win in the lottery than if it represents the lowest.[19] Decision analysts operate on the assumption that individuals will anticipate the potential for disappointment and make decisions that are less likely to lead to the experience of this feeling.[15] Disappointment aversion has been posited as one explanation for the Allais paradox, a problematic response in expected utility theory wherein people prove more likely to choose a sure reward than to risk a higher one while at the same time being willing to attempt a greater reward with lower probability when both options include some risk.[20]

While earlier developers of disappointment theory focused on anticipated outcomes, more recent examinations by Philippe Delquié and Alessandra Cillo of INSEAD have focused on the impact of later disappointment resulting when an actual outcome comes to be regarded negatively based on further development; for example, if a person receives higher than expected gains in the stock market, she may be elated until she discovers a week later that she could have gained much more profit if she had waited a few more days to sell.[15] This experience of disappointment may influence subsequent behavior, and, the analysts state, an incorporation of such variables into disappointment theory may enhance the study of behavioral finance.[15] Disappointment is, along with regret, measured by direct questioning of respondents.[21]

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Dealing with disappointment: Parent & child study guides to watching a sports event, Association for Applied Sport Psychology
  • Craib, Ian (22 Sep 1994). The Importance of Disappointment, 216, Routledge.
  • Loomes, Graham. (February, 1988) "Further Evidence of the Impact of Regret and Disappointment in Choice under Uncertainty". Economica, New Series, Vol. 55, No. 217, pp.47-62. doi:10.2307/2554246 Abstract
  • Mandel, David R.; Denis J. Hilton and Patrizia Catellani (2005). The Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking, 251, Routledge.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Bell, David E. (Jan. 1985) Putting a premium on regret. Management Science, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 117-120.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Ma, Lybi. (March 29 2004). Down But Not Out. Originally published in Psychology Today. Hosted with permission by Retrieved 22/02/08.
  3. Wilco, W. can Dijk, Marcel Zeelenbergb and Joop van der Pligtc. (April 18 2001). "Blessed are those who expect nothing: Lowering expectations as a way of avoiding disappointment." Journal of Economic Psychology, Volume 24, Issue 4, August 2003, Pages 505-516.
  4. Wilco W. van Dijk and Marcel Zeelenberg. (December 2002). "Investigating the appraisal patterns of regret and disappointment." Motivation and Emotion Volume 26, Number 4, pp. 321-331. Abstract.
  5. "disappoint". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd ed. (1992). Houghton Mifflin Company. 529. 
  6. "disappointment". The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Volume 1. (1993). Clarendon Press, Oxford.. 683. 0198612710. 
  7. Forbes, Erika E., Nathan A. Fox, Jeffrey F. Cohn, Steven F. Galles and Maria Kovacs. (March 2006) "Children's affect regulation during a disappointment: Psychophysiological responses and relation to parent history of depression" (abstract). Biological Psychology Volume 71, Issue 3. pp. 264-277.
  8. Gilbert, Paul (1992). Depression: The Evolution of Powerlessness, 576 pages, Guilford Press. p. 315.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Schwartz, Todd. (Summer 2003) Positive thinking Chronicle, Lewis & Clark College. Retrieved 22/02/08.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Neimark, Jill. (May/Jun 2007) The optimism revolution Psychology Today. Retrieved 22/02/08.
  11. Grohol, John M. (February 4 2006) Is it best to expect the worst? Psychologists test long-held theory of emotional cushioning. Retrieved 22/02/08.
  12. Segerstrom, Suzanne C. (Sep 2006) "How does optimism suppress immunity? Evaluation of three affective pathways"] Health Psychology. Vol 25(5) 653-657. See also Optimism and immunity: Do positive thoughts always lead to positive effects? (abstract)
  13. Seale, Clive (2002). Media and Health, 242, London: Sage Publications, Inc. p. 167
  14. Seale, p. 167-168.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 "Disappointment Without Prior Expectation Cause and Affect" - Understanding emotion in decisions under risk INSEAD (2005). Retrieved 22/02/08.
  16. Delquié, Philippe and Alessandra Cillo. (December 2006). "Disappointment without prior expectation: a unifying perspective on decision under risk". Journal of Risk and Uncertainty Volume 33, Number 3, pp. 197-215. Abstract.
  17. See, for example, Why Do People Go Home Again? Disappointment Theory and Target Saving Theory Revisited, Regret and disappointment in taxpayer reporting decisions: An experimental study (abstract) and Do satisfied customers really pay more? A study of the relationship between customer satisfaction and willingness to pay (abstract)
  18. Schwartz, Alan. (2002) "Expected feelings about risky options", in S. Moore and M. Oakford (ed.), Emotional Cognition, John Benjamins Publishing Co., pp. 183-196. isbn 1588112241.
  19. Bell, David E. (Jan. - Feb., 1985.) "Disappointment in Decision Making under Uncertainty". (Abstract)Operations Research, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 1-27.
  20. cf.Jianmin Jia, James S. Dyer and John C. Butler. (January 2001) "Generalized disappointment models." Journal of Risk and Uncertainty Volume 22, No. 1, pp. 59-78. and Gul, Faruk. (May 1991) "A Theory of Disappointment Aversion." Econometrica Volume 59, No. 3, pp. 667-86. For an alternate model of the Allais paradox, see The Allais Paradox at
  21. Marcatto, Francesco and Donatella Ferrante. (January 2008) The Regret and Disappointment Scale: An instrument for assessing regret and disappointment in decision making. Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 87–99.

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