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Which of Your Life Choices Would You Change If You Could?

New research shows the surprising reasons why people feel regret.

Key points

  • Life is full of endless choices, some of which can lead people to experience regret over the path not chosen.
  • New research shows that the choice you don't make can create even more pain when you know the outcome.
  • By recalibrating your expectations, you may find it easier to live with your choices, even when they weren't optimal.

That life is filled with an infinite number of choices is a fact that you may often face as you think back on some of the ones that you’ve made, but perhaps even more importantly, on the ones you haven't made yet. Indeed, a television commercial in the U.S. advertising a travel booking site uses a type of fast-forward approach to entice you to consider decisions you make now so that you don’t regret them later. Specifically, the actor Ewan McGregor poses the issue as follows: “I doubt that any of us will look back on our lives and think ‘I wish I’d gotten a slightly sportier SUV, or an even thinner TV, … or had an even smarter smartphone. Do you think any of us will look back on our lives and regret the things we didn’t buy, or the places we didn’t go?” The commercial ends with the message, “Save more on the things that matter.”

Perhaps as you think about that ad, you begin to envision yourself years or decades from now, and wonder how to keep from experiencing such painful regrets. Even if you don't run to book your next vacation, you may have to stop for a moment or two as you fast-forward to your own future. Which of the decisions you’re making now might you regret, and which of the opportunities you passed up so far seem to preoccupy you the most?

The Nature of Regret

The kind of regret you might feel over a choice not made is slightly different from the regret you may feel about an action you’ve taken. For example, the actor Will Smith may come to regret his angry outburst at the 2022 Academy Awards that led to his on-stage attack of comedian Chris Rock. It’s true that Smith made a “choice” to behave the way he did, and it may even affect his future life outcomes. However, this is different than a choice you might make to go on vacation rather than spend your hard-earned cash on a new smartphone. It may be even more consequential when it comes to the decisions you make based on evaluating complex options among a set of potentially desirable alternatives such as where you go to school, who you become involved with romantically, and which jobs to consider.

According to Dartmouth College’s Daniel Feiler and University of Navarra’s Johannes Müller-Trede (2022), regret is “a counterfactual emotion that arises when a decision lacks ex post justification or results in an outcome that falls short of a standard of expectation.” In other words, you regret a decision that made no sense (“ex post justification”) or that resulted in a worse outcome than what actually happened. Regret should be highest, based on this logic, when you can see how wrong your choice actually was.

The issues aren’t all that simple, however. People make these comparisons on the basis of what Feller and Müller-Trede refer to as “noisy judgments and biased beliefs.” Imagine that you have several options to consider when you’re looking to move to a new home. Perhaps you started with a set of five or seven possibilities, which you then narrowed down to your top two. Both of these, by definition, seem the most attractive options. After pursuing and then getting your number one choice, the authors argue, it will inevitably produce disappointment because you know the outcome (e.g. perhaps the roof leaks). You’ll never know about the other home, your “forgone alternative,” because you won’t have moved into it. As a result, that alternative will remain in your mind as a source of nagging regret.

That regret is made worse, in the words of the researchers, due to “a persistent bias by which people overestimate the attractiveness of the forgone alternative.” The reason the forgone alternative made it to the top of your list of choices thus guarantees that it will always seem highly attractive, because otherwise you would have dismissed it right away. Without knowing how things would have turned out if you'd chosen it, you'll remember it as that castle in the cloud, a constant and tantalizing reminder of how things could have been.

Testing the Faulty Thinking Behind Regret

The research team set up an experimental paradigm that allowed them to test their idea that regret is worse when you don't know the outcome of your choice. The basic framework of the study involved presenting their online participants with the task of making a virtual choice between two alternatives, both of which seemed equally desirable. Having made their choice, participants then got to see what would have happened if they picked the forgone rather than the chosen alternative.

Putting yourself in one of the experimental situations can give you a sense of how the authors tested their predictions. You’re using a virtual dating app and see two blurred faces, from which you’re supposed to pick the one you think will be more attractive. In the “alternative blurred” condition, you don’t see the result of your choice and in the “alternative revealed,” you do.

You might think that revealing the alternative would make you feel less regret about your choice (all choices were controlled for a measure of attractiveness). However, in line with the study’s predictions, the findings showed that people actually felt better when they could see the choice they didn’t make.

Returning to the situation involving your choice of a home, then, even if someone told you that the one you didn’t choose was so well-maintained that it didn’t need any major repairs, the study’s findings suggest that you’d still feel worse if these details never became revealed to you. As strange as this sounds, then, you’re better off knowing than not knowing whether you made the right choice or not. However, must you spend your life always plagued by regret over the choices whose outcome you never knew?

How to Lower Your Regret with a Simple Mental Adjustment

In the fourth of their series of studies, Feiler and Müller-Trede created what they call a “debiasing” method intended to bring down the levels of regret in people who didn’t know the outcome of their choice. Rather than make them feel better about the forgone outcome as a way to alleviate their regret, the authors instead gave participants enough information to allow them to “recalibrate” their expectations about the unchosen option before knowing the outcome.

Participants in this final study made their choices (in this case of hiring an applicant), but before seeing the outcome, the researchers presented them with data that showed the strengths and weaknesses of the forgone candidate. This prevented the biased expectation process from misleading participants in the first place because they knew in advance about the alternative’s true value.

The results of this last, debiasing, intervention supported the research team’s expectations, showing that the participants given accurate information about their choice reduced significantly their levels of regret compared to the control condition. As the authors concluded, when it comes to the kind of rare but consequential decisions people make in their own lives, it is likely that “better-calibrated beliefs about forgone alternatives would cause less regret.”

Returning to the example of the home decision, maybe the choice you didn’t go with had a perfect repair record, but wasn’t in the most desirable location. Allowing this fact to enter into your mental reckoning could be enough to allow you to remain comfortable with the choice you did make.

To sum up, rather than focus on “the one that got away,” you’ll experience less regret if you are able to do your own regret recalibration. Thinking back on that vacation ad, and how "future you" will think about "present you," this information can help you engage in preventive recalibration to allow you to look back on the paths you chose with feelings of fulfillment rather than regret.

References

Feiler, D., & Müller-Trede, J. (2022). The one that got away: Overestimation of forgone alternatives as a hidden source of regret. Psychological Science, 33(2), 314–324. doi: 10.1177/09567976211032657

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