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The Psychology of Regret

Should we really aim to live our lives with no regrets?

Edith Piaf, the famous French singer, sang, "Non, je ne regrette rien" (I have no regrets). Should we follow her advice and try to live in the moment, without looking back and without any self-judgment? Or can we sometimes learn valuable lessons by analyzing our behavior and its consequences? Read on to find out what the research tells us about this ubiquitous and complicated emotion.

What is Regret?

Regret is a negative cognitive or emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been, or wishing we could undo a previous choice that we made.

For young people in particular, regret, although painful to experience, can be a helpful emotion. The pain of regret can result in refocusing and taking corrective action or pursuing a new path. However, the less opportunity one has to change the situation, the more likely it is that regret can turn into rumination and trigger chronic stress that damages mind and body.

Do Men and Women Differ in The Things They Regret?

Studies on gender differences in regret show the increased value that women put on relationships and how women may have more difficulty disengaging attention from past relationships. Overall, 44 percent of women surveyed in one study had romantic regrets, versus just 19 percent of men.

This result may also reflect men’s greater tendency to replace lost relationships quickly with new partners. In this study, those not currently in a relationship had, perhaps understandably, more regret over past ones.

Do People Living in the U.S. Experience Regret More Than in Other Cultures?

Research studies have compared the experience of regret in cultures such as the U.S., where individuals have more choice over their life's course, compared to more collectivist cultures, where family have much more control over an individual's life choices.

Not surprisingly, regret is much more commonly experienced and reported to have more positive aspects by young people in the U.S. People in collectivist cultures, which deemphasize individual choice, have less of a basis for blaming themselves for negative outcomes. They may feel as if they had no other choice—so they may as well accept the situation and make the best of it.

Do People Experience More Regret When They Look Back Over Long Periods?

Other research has compared regret over different time periods. Over short time periods, people are more likely to regret actions taken and mistakes made—whereas over long time periods, they are more likely to regret actions not taken, such as missed opportunities for love or working too hard and not spending enough time with family.

Is There Any Value in Regret?

Researcher Neal Roese of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University is a leader in the field of regret research. His studies of younger people have shown that regret was rated more favorably than unfavorably, primarily because of its informational value in motivating corrective action.

Interestingly, regret was rated highest of a list of negative emotions in fulfilling five functions:

  1. making sense of the world
  2. avoiding future negative behaviors
  3. gaining insight
  4. achieving social harmony
  5. improving ability to approach desired opportunities (presumably because we regret past passivity)

Can Regret Have Long-Term Effects on Well-Being?

Regret can have damaging effects on mind and body when it turns into fruitless rumination and self-blame that keeps people from re-engaging with life. This pattern of repetitive, negative, self-focused ruminative thinking is characteristic of depression—and may be a cause of this mental health problem as well.

Other research, reported in the AARP Newsletter, shows that regret can result in chronic stress, negatively affecting hormonal and immune system functioning. Regret impedes the ability to recover from stressful life events by extending their emotional reach for months, years, or lifetimes.

What is the Cognitive Basis of Regret?

Regret can also stem from counterfactual thinking. In other words, the easier it is to envision a different outcome, the more likely we are to regret the lost opportunity. The Harvard Newsletter tells a story of a man in Liverpool who always chose the same set of lottery numbers. One time, however, he forgot to buy a ticket—and his numbers came up.

According to the story, the poor man was so full of self-recrimination and regret that he committed suicide. Coming that close to a life of riches—and then not getting it because of his own inaction—was, perhaps, too much to bear. Interestingly, career mistakes are a frequent source of regret in research studies—perhaps because of opportunities that people come close to but miss.

Can Advertisers Harness the Power of Regret?

Advertisers often harness the power of regret to get people to buy products. We are all familiar with those depressing ads for life insurance, in which conversations after the funeral focus on regrets about not buying insurance policies, and the difficulties that arose as a result.

More recently, V8—a brand of vegetable juice—has released an ad campaign with the slogan “I could have had a V8.” The idea is to motivate people to have the V8 next time. Similarly, brands, such as Nike, that focus on exercise use slogans focusing on next-day regret for not exercising as a way to motivate healthier lifestyles—presumably leading to more use of their products. Luxury retailers familiar with the research could also, presumably, stimulate consumers to think about how they would feel ten years from now if they had bought the cheaper sweater instead of the cashmere.

What Can We Do to Cope With Regret?

1. Harness the functional aspects.

Regret, like all emotions, has a function for survival. It is our brain's way of telling us to take another look at our choices—a signal that our actions may be leading to negative consequences. Regret is a major reason why addicts get into recovery.

2. If there is nothing you can do to change the situation, let it go.

If you get stuck blaming yourself and regretting past actions, this could turn into depression and damage your self-esteem. Find a way to forgive yourself and let it go. You could think about what you would say to a loved one in the same situation to make them feel better. Most people have an easier time forgiving others than themselves.

3. Make sure you are not taking too much blame.

Consider the circumstances that may have made it more difficult to make good choices in that particular instance, or the fact that you had limited knowledge at the time. Perhaps you had to make a quick decision under time pressure or had multiple stresses going on.

4. Reframe the situation more positively.

Think about life as a journey. Everybody makes mistakes. They can be opportunities to learn important lessons about yourself—including your values, vulnerabilities, and triggers—as well as about other people. You can also use past regrets to decide how to take better care of yourself in the future.

New Developments in Regret Research

Exciting new research is beginning to uncover how we process regret in the brain. Read my next post, "The Neuroscience of Regret," to learn about these findings.

Follow me on Twitter @drmelanieg

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