Why We Don't Regret Our Tattoos

...in spite of radical changes in our aesthetic preferences.

Posted Sep 04, 2019

Only 17 percent of those who have tattoos regret them. And the vast majority of these only do so because they got the "wrong" name tattooed – a boyfriend or girlfriend’s name when the relationship didn’t last.

The rest of those who have tattoos don’t regret them. Is it because they are just all great? Do they have lasting beauty? Or do they express the personality of your values perfectly? None of the above. Our aesthetic preferences change, often radically. Nonetheless, if you have tattoos, you probably say you love them and you will always love them. How is this possible?

According to some recent findings, aesthetic preferences change surprisingly quickly and often without us noticing. They are the most stable in middle-aged people and they are much more fluid in younger and, somewhat surprisingly, older age groups. But even the aesthetic preferences of people in the most stable age group undergo at least one major change as often as every two weeks in an aesthetic domain they really care about.

Would tattoos be exceptional? We certainly tend to think so. But this confidence itself is something psychologists have a lot to say about. The End of History Illusion is that we all think we changed a lot in the last five years, but we are surprisingly reluctant to acknowledge that we might change much in the next five years. We consider ourselves to be the finished product. The present point is the end of our personal history.

The End of History Illusion, as the label suggests, is an illusion. It is not true that you will not change in the next five years – maybe even more than you did in the last five years. And many of these changes happen under the radar. Your preferences change as a result of mere exposure. For example: if you encounter a musical tune while shopping in the mall, just the mere exposure to this tune will slightly change your musical preferences. And even your personality traits can change – you can become less introverted or more introverted for example. A recent study found very little correlation between the personality traits of the same people at age 18 and 68. Why would your aesthetic preference for tattoo design remain constant?

Why is it then that very few people regret their tattoos? The most plausible explanation has to do with cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a fancy label for the icky feeling triggered by some kind of mental conflict, mainly when we do something that blatantly contradicts the way we think about ourselves. For example, you steal a cab from an old lady at the airport because you’re in a hurry. Not a nice thing to do. And you probably don’t think of yourself as a jerk – as someone who completely disregards other people’s interests, even if they are elderly and in need. When the cab leaves the airport, you probably feel just a little bit dirty, maybe even a pang of regret. Not a nice feeling.

Nobody likes cognitive dissonance. Nobody likes to feel dirty. And the human mind is very good at getting rid of this icky feeling. The most widespread mechanism for reducing cognitive dissonance is that you can somehow convince yourself that you didn’t do anything wrong. Maybe the old lady was not actually in a hurry. And there was another cab arriving, so she didn’t have to wait that long anyway. And you were in a real hurry, you just had no choice. So, no conflict and no dissonance; what you did was entirely reasonable and you have no reason to feel icky.

Something like this (but in a much milder form) is going on with the tattoos. Even if you notice that the tattoo design should have been a bit less colorful or maybe a bit more colorful, it is very unlikely that you will explicitly admit this to yourself. It is very painful, tedious and expensive to get rid of your tattoos, so it is much easier to just dismiss the feeling of something being off with the tattoo. The nagging feeling of conflict (between your changed aesthetic preferences and your unchanging tattoo) is still there, but it is swept under the carpet. If you’re really good at cognitive dissonance management, you will not even feel the tension: I must like this tattoo because it is my tattoo and I have great taste in tattoos.

So you don’t regret your tattoos because any shadow of regret would be policed and dealt with by cognitive dissonance resolution. This is a good thing in many ways – it definitely saves you a lot of money on laser removal surgery. But it also has its dangers. Too much unresolved cognitive dissonance is not good for you. It can lead to various forms of addiction and eating disorders, for example. This is obviously not a reason not to ink but maybe a reason to come to terms with your ever-changing aesthetic sensibilities.

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