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Is Regret Experienced Differently Across Cultures?

Universals Regarding the Psychology of Regret.

Whenever consumers make a purchase, they can occasionally experience a form of regret known as buyer's remorse (or more generally cognitive dissonance). By buying car X, I have foregone cars A, B, and C. Did I make the right choice? I regret the fact that I bought X (regret over an action taken) or perhaps I regret the fact that I did not choose one of cars A, B, or C (regret over an inaction).

A few years ago, Thomas Gilovich, Ranxiao Frances Wang, Dennis Regan, and Sadafumi Nishina published a paper in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology wherein they explored cross-cultural differences in the manner in which regret was experienced. Specifically, they wanted to gauge the frequency of two forms of regret across cultural settings namely regret that is typically experienced at one's inactions versus that experienced for actions taken. An example of the former would be the regret at not having pursued one's desire to become a chef whereas a regretful action might be the fact that one decided to become an accountant. See Art Markman's post, a fellow PT blogger, on this topic here. In several studies that have been conducted in the United States, it was found that over the long-term, regret over inaction looms larger in people's hearts and minds.

Is the latter finding culturally dependent? Are there cultural traits that would predispose individuals of a given country to experience regret in manners that are distinct from that felt by American samples? Gilovich et al. collected data from China, Japan, and Russia, three countries each of which possesses a collectivist ethos (see my earlier post here about one of my studies on the link between individualism-collectivism and creativity). The thinking was that societies with an individualist bent are more likely to stress self-actualization. Accordingly, failure to be maximally self-actualized was thought more likely to arise from inaction. On the other hand, collectivist societies stress harmony of the group over pursuits of self-interest. In such instances, it was hypothesized that many sources of regret might originate from actions taken that were offending to group members. The findings did not bear the hypothesized effect. Rather, in all of the investigated cultures, individuals experienced greater regret over "self-centered" inactions. This is quite interesting in that it demonstrates this central element in the psychology of regret.

If you're wondering what it is that I most regret, well it is triggered by an event that happens every four years namely the World Cup of soccer. As a young man, I faced an important decision: Should I move to Europe and pursue a professional soccer career or take the less "risky" path of becoming an academic? For reasons too complex to delve into here, I did not pursue my athletic career. Whereas I am fully fulfilled in my chosen profession (I knew from a very young age that I would eventually become an academic), I often experience the tinges of regret over my soccer-related inaction.

By the way, two of the authors of the study in question were former psychology professors of mine at Cornell. Shout out to Professors Gilovich and Regan! I might regret not having pursued my soccer career in Europe but I certainly do not regret having had you as my professors!

Source for Image:
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