Rewind, undo, and buyer’s remorse

In 1895, the human world changed completely when the Lumière brothers (in France) and Woodville Latham (in the USA) started to show their ‘motion pictures’ to audiences. For the first time, people were able to show the effects of controlling time, the one thing that no scientist, engineer or inventor before had been able to do.

It was quickly discovered that, by running the film fast through a projector, time would be accelerated; by running it slowly, slow motion was seen, which effectively slowed down the progress of time. Running it backwards was even stranger, as time was seen to reverse. Ever since then, children and naive adults have been transfixed by movies, by their apparent control over time.

From about 1972 (there were earlier recorders, but they were far from popular), anyone with around £600 could become their own Time Lord, with a video cassette recorder for their own home. Within a few years, we discovered how we could manipulate time using these domestic devices. We could record broadcast TV and watch it a few days later, rewind to an earlier point in the tape and watch the same events several times, and generally break all the rules of time in the physical world.

A decade or so later, as personal computers started to become available, they enhanced our powers over time. In addition to their limited support for ‘moving images’, software started to ship with the ability to undo your actions. If you were editing a paragraph and made a real mess of it, you could invoke the Undo command to step back in time, and try again. Then we were not just able to reverse time, but to go back and have another go. It was not only a huge step forward from using pencil and an eraser, it enhanced our perception of control over time.

Following last week’s referendum in the UK over EU membership, there are many people who claim to have voted in favour of leaving, who now admit that they wish that they had voted differently: already termed Bregret. They are suffering from buyer’s remorse – the same feeling that we all get when we have just bought something, then wish that we hadn’t.

Regret is a common emotion among voters, either those who voted for an unsuccessful candidate, or the many who realise that the successful candidate fails to deliver on their promises even after many months or years. It is very unusual among those who voted for the successful candidate, on the day or two after the election.

There are several theories to explain buyer’s remorse, but I don’t think it necessary to delve too deep to understand what has happened in terms of cognitive dissonance: those voters made their decisions under a set of assumptions, and have now discovered that those assumptions were false or misguided. This has occurred so early because many had not thought through the consequences of the result. It was not that their original decision was made foolishly, or flippantly, but many had apparently not appreciated that a decision to leave was serious, potentially disastrous, and irreversible.

These remorseful buyers express a wish to reverse their vote, as if they could press the rewind button, or use the undo command, and have another try.

We now spend so long in a world where we are Time Lords: video games, streamed movies, recorded music, apps of all ilk, even credit agreements with their statutory cooling off periods. Screw up, and you can step back and try it again, or make a fresh start altogether. Minds can be changed, and changed again, at little or no cost or penalty.

When I first watched movies or TV, if I went out for a pee, I missed those few minutes, and would never see them again. Making a correction in an essay laboriously written in pen and ink was not an easy matter, and invariably stood out. There was very limited consumer protection, and plenty of sharks about. So many decisions had to be made right first time, as there was no second chance.

Have we – individually and collectively – perhaps lost the skill of making good decisions the first time around, because a part of our mind is now too used to being able to have another go?