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When You've Been Bad, Is it Enough to Say You're Sorry?

New research shows that regret but not apology will change bad behavior

Regret is headline news whenever a major public figure commits a public and harmful error. After the U.S. Olympic swimmers apparently false claim that they were robbed at gunpoint after a night of partying in Rio, the world demanded that they express their regret, if not their apologies to Brazilian authorities. Donald Trump, for his part, has stated that he regrets some of his statements and attacks, but he’s stopped short of an apology. Hillary Clinton has actually apologized for her use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State but expressed regret for her Iraq war vote. These behaviors lie on a continuum which we might construct as ranging from nothing to regret to apology. In a new review of the regret and crime literature from a neuroscience perspective, University of Texas sociologist Mark Warr tackles the question of whether regret is the most behavior-changing response of all.

According to Warr, regret is part and parcel of our everyday emotional experience: “Because humans must relentlessly make choices as they navigate their way through life, some of those decisions must inevitably appear misguided when viewed retrospectively” (p. 231). In popular belief, it’s better to apologize than to express regret. Warr maintains, by contrast, that when you peer into what your brain is doing when you express regret, there is a substantial set of changes in a critical part of the cortex. Because of how the brain responds, regret will be highly effective in prompting you to learn from your mistakes.

Regret, Warr argues is a “counterfactual emotion,” meaning that it can only be experienced when you compare an actual outcome to an imagined alternative. You can only feel regret when your action, in retrospect, seems worse than another action you might have taken. For example, you spent more money than you intended to during a bout of online shopping. You’ll only feel regret if you, upon reflection, wish you had controlled your impulses. If you’re happy with the outcome, there’s no reason to feel regret.

The question next becomes one of predicting what you’ll do in the future based on your current feelings of regret. Will you remember how badly you felt after your Sunday night romp through Amazon the next time you’re tempted by some “amazing” deals? According to Warr, if the regret is strong enough, it will inhibit your future buying binges.

There are a range of similar emotions to regret, including disappointment, shame, guilt, and sadness. However, Warr’s belief is that regret is the one emotion that can potentially alter the behavior of a criminal. Remorse is closely related to regret (and may be a subcategory) but it’s regret alone that can lead a criminal to change. Regret is not the same as guilt; in Warr’s words: “It is the nature of regret that one stands convicted in one’s own court, the most intimate and inescapable of all courts” (p. 233). A criminal may be found (or even plead) guilty, but only regret is associated with feelings of culpability.

The key to understanding regret is the fact that when truly felt, it is associated with a sense of personal responsibility. A non-regretful politician who’s been exposed in a sex scandal blames the media without ever acknowledging that the behavior was wrong. Regretful public figures recognize that they made their own decisions and that the exposure of their foibles was completely within their own control.

What we should care about, then, whether it’s in the area of crime, politics, or our personal relationships, isn’t whether someone apologizes but whether that person will behave differently in the future. We don’t want to release criminals back into the community if we think they’ll just keep robbing and assaulting us. We don’t want to elect politicians who will continue to flaunt our sense of morality and decency. We don’t even want to cheer on athletes who we believe will get involved in new escapades at the next opportunity. With romantic partners, we certainly don’t care as much about an apology as whether they’ll keep cheating on us. According to Warr, regret will get you there, and apologies will not.

The power of regret to change behavior is, according to Warr, the fact that once you’ve experienced regret, you’ll work hard to avoid it in the future: “I believe that human beings often refrain from criminal behavior, even highly rewarding behavior, in anticipation of possible regret” (p. 236). To put it in more concrete terms, imagine that you’ve burned yourself on a hot frying pan. The next time you reach for that pan, the memory of the pain you felt will motivate you to put on a pot holder. You want to avoid the experience of a future burned thumb and index finger.

Warr also believes that, unlike Freud’s assertion, it’s not guilt but regret that forms the foundation of civilization. Having made the choice to steal (vs. not steal), the convicted criminal makes future decisions in a way that will avoid this consequence. Indeed, Warr defines prison as “the laboratory of regret” (p. 238).

You may believe that this is all too rosy a picture of how criminals can be deterred from their behavior. However, here it’s worth differentiating the psychopath from the non-personality disordered perpetrator. Psychopaths by definition cannot feel regret (or remorse) and therefore don’t learn or reform after being caught. The run of the mill criminal, Warr believes, can be reformed and in fact, most offenders actually do stop offending precisely because they feel regret.

Returning to the question of that continuum from stated innocence to regret to apologies, maybe it’s time to change the continuum with apologies in the middle and regret at the very extreme. The regret has to be honest, of course, and not just a way to avoid being the brunt of public blame or criticism. It should also be specific. Just saying "I regret what I've said" isn't as good as saying "I regret saying that I don't like your cousin." If a switch truly flips inside the offender, that person’s behavior can and will change in the future.

Warr’s exploration takes a life course approach in which he views offending behavior, criminal and otherwise, to a matter of learning from life’s lessons. If that lesson occurs in the context of regret, it’s bound to have life-changing consequences.


Warr, M. (2016). Crime and regret. Emotion Review, 8(3), 231-239. doi:10.1177/1754073915586818