Why You Feel Regret—and What You Can Do About It
New research shows that we regret the couldas more than the shouldas.
Posted May 24, 2018
If you look back over the course of your life, do you feel you took advantage of every opportunity that came your way? Or, are you living with the weight of regret? No matter how accomplished you may be, it’s true that everyone experiences the harsh reality of knowing they failed to take action in pursuing something they wanted for themselves.
Is there any other way, really? These are the inevitable realities of living a complex life, a life full of ups and downs. And perhaps, in theory, there’s a small handful of (superpowered) people living regret-free lives. But for the vast majority of us, regret is a real thing that we have to face. So whether you bemoan doing something you wish you hadn’t or miss doing something you wish you had, regret is a universal emotion. No wonder psychologists have taken a keen interest in the topic.
The study of regret goes beyond just missed opportunities and regrettable actions. Recently, researchers have begun to explore the link between regret and a person’s general self-concept. They have started asking such questions as: Do you have a clear sense of who you are, and are you living up to the person you want to be? Are you living your life in a way that fulfills your duties and responsibilities to others?
These types of questions motivated a recent study. Scientists proposed that a person’s most enduring regrets are more likely to stem from the discrepancies between actual and “ideal” selves, rather than between actual and “ought” selves. Put simply, you are much more likely to dwell on all you could have been than on all you should have been.
A closer look at self-discrepancy theory
The distinction between the couldas and the shouldas is related to how you carve up your sense of self.
According to the psychologist Edward Higgins, a person’s sense of self is made up of three components: actual, ideal, and ought selves.
The “actual self” is your own basic self-concept, your representation of the traits and qualities you believe you possess. Your “ideal self” is the representation of attributes you would like to have ideally, be it related to your future goals, wishes, etc. Lastly, your “ought self” is your representation of the qualities you believe you should possess, based on duties and obligations that are socially rooted.
When there is a discrepancy between any of these selves, a number of negative emotions are bound to arise. Specifically, emotions such as disappointment and sadness result from the belief that you are not living up to your “ideal” self. In contrast, if you believe you are failing to live up to your “ought” self, you are more likely to experience emotions such as guilt and fear.
Building on this theory, the researchers in the present investigation wanted to test two hypotheses. First, they predicted that people’s most enduring regrets result more from the discrepancies between their actual and ideal selves than their actual and ought selves. Second, they wanted to discover the specific mechanism responsible for this difference. They suggested at the outset that the way you cope with regret affects its longevity in your life. Specifically, failures to live up to your “ought” self call for more immediate action and coping efforts to repair the damage. In contrast, failures to live up to your “ideal” self are perceived as less urgent and are often placed on a back burner, which in turn makes those regrets more enduring and detrimental in the long run.
The study and results
To test their hypotheses, the researchers conducted six separate studies. In the first study, they simply asked the participants which they regretted more—failing to live up to their ideal selves or their ought selves. In line with the predictions, the majority of participants reported experiencing more regret regarding not being the person they could have been.
In studies 2 and 3, the researchers asked the participants to recall specific, significant regrets they had experienced in their lives, and to indicate whether those regrets were more ideal- or ought-based. Again, as predicted, participants were more likely to regret their failure to live up to their ideal selves.
Next, in studies 4 and 5, the researchers tested their second hypothesis: Are coping differences the reason for the increased weight of ideal-based regret? That is, the researchers predicted that participants would be more likely to attend to and deal with ought-related regrets than ideal-related regrets. That's exactly what they found. It seems then, that ought-related regrets require more immediate behavioral and psychological repair work, whereas ideal-related regrets seems as though they can be put away and dealt with at a later time. Part of this might be due to the pressures of impression management and the constant desire to be accepted by others.
The central aim of the sixth and final study was to uncover the link between resolved and unresolved regrets, and whether those regrets were related more to the participants’ ideal selves or their ought selves.
Once again, the findings suggested that ideal-related regrets are less likely to elicit psychological and behavioral coping efforts, which leads people to think they are still unresolved. In contrast, because people have a more pressing need to deal with their ought-related regrets (again, because of social pressures), they are more likely to ultimately perceive them as resolved and dealt with.
Why it matters for you and your life
Contrary to what you hear in the media or what your friends tell you, living life without any regrets is pretty much an impossible task. It is completely natural to wonder what your life could have been like had you chosen another career path or had you married your high school sweetheart. From huge life-altering decisions to trivial everyday choices—our lives are full of could haves and should haves. It’s what makes us human.
Importantly though, not all regrets are felt the same. They differ in number and intensity based on the different categories of self-concept. This information could be used to minimize the weight of regret in your own life.
It all depends on who you are and what you are trying to achieve. If you define yourself more by your obligations and responsibilities (the “ought”), it would be wise to think carefully before making any decisions that involve close others in your life. On the other hand, if you are guided more by your personal ideal, then you may be happier deciding on the thing that move you closer to it.
The first step, then, in reducing regret: know thyself.
Davidai, S., & Gilovich, T. (2018). The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people's most enduring regrets. Emotion, 18, 439-452.