Why Regret May Not Always Be a Bad Thing (But Sometimes Is)

The psychology of woulda, coulda, shoulda

Posted Apr 22, 2015

Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock
Source: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock

Over a lifetime, some amount of regret is inevitable: Mistakes, missteps, and bad decisions are part of the human condition. We’re all vulnerable to wondering what might have happened if we’d done one thing and not the other, or if we’d only acted when we didn’t. But how we process regret varies from one person to the next.  

Paradoxically, regret can motivate us into action (“I won’t let an opportunity like that slip away again!”) or stop us dead in our tracks, mourning what might have been (“If only I’d left the first time he/she lied to me” or “If only I hadn’t quit before the company went public”). There are those among us who, echoing Edith Piaf, insist that “Non, je ne regrette rien” (“No, I regret nothing") and find a silver lining in every bad choice. This insistence is due to what Daniel Gilbert has called the psychological immune system (aka rationalization), and a large dose of positive thinking. Others, following the lead of poet Robert Frost, find validation in the road not taken and consider it a blessing which helps them make sense of life. And then there’s the rest of us who, echoing a line by Arthur Miller, believe that “Maybe all one can do is end up with the right regrets.”

What’s interesting about regret is that it doesn’t seem hardwired into our species like other basic emotions such as joy, fear, or sadness. Babies don’t feel or express regret, and there’s no universal facial expression for it. According to one study, children around age 7 first experience regret, using the kind of  “if/then” thinking that sparks it. There’s even a lively debate about whether regret springs from the decisions we make and the actions we take or whether it’s largely caused by inaction. (Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky offer up the action explanation; Thomas Gilovich and Victoria Husted Medvec represent the inaction side.)

Regret, of course, comes in all sizes, from tiny to enormous. More important, regrets differ greatly in their impact on our emotions, our thoughts, and ourselves. It’s one thing to regret missing your kid’s soccer game or forgetting the big shoe sale at Saks, and quite another to regret marrying your spouse or not having children. Obviously, it’s the big regrets that we can’t take back—whether it’s something we did to someone else or to ourselves—that are the hardest for most of us to process. (I say “most of us” deliberately since there are some individuals—I won’t name names—who, because they don’t take responsibility for their actions, don’t experience this type of regret.)

One study by Neal J. Roese and others looked at the kind of regret which links to depression and other mental problems. The study focused in on the connection between specific regrets which included a component of self-blame and repetitive thinking or excessive rumination. (An example might be turning again and again to the regret that you didn’t marry your high school girlfriend or that you married the person you are now divorcing.) Perhaps not surprisingly, since they tend to ruminate more, women appeared to engage in repetitive regret more than men. But the researchers’ findings did underscore the connection between repetitive regrets and mental and emotional distress.

What remains interesting about regret is that it’s a negative feeling which can yield either negative or positive results, potentially weighing you down with “if only"s or spurring you on to correct your behavior. Think for a moment about the choices in your own life you’ve regretted and ask yourself how regret affected you: Did regret about not taking a job that seemed risky or too difficult at the time inspire you to stick your neck out and be more flexible or adventurous in the years that followed? Did your regret about the role you played in a failed relationship—a romantic liaison, a friendship, or a business partnership—inspire you to work harder at connecting emotionally in the future, or did it simply leave you feeling deflated, bitter, and committed to being alone and self-reliant? Put another way, does regret inspire you to take stock of yourself or throw in the towel?

It’s curious how individual differences appear to account for how regret works in a person’s life. It won’t surprise you that it’s believed that personality plays a role in both how regretful you feel and how you manage your feelings of regret. Barry D. Schwartz and others have studied whether potential regret influenced behavior. They differentiated between people who were maximizers—always focused on making the best possible choice, doing their homework, and having high standards—and those who were satisficers, content with choices that were "good enough," The latter, they posited, weren’t driven by potential regret and were less likely to feel regretful. What they found was counterintuitive: Maximizers were more sensitive to social comparisons, worrying about whether other people’s choices were better than the ones they made, and were more insistent that they always achieve the best result. However, they were less likely to be happy with their choices and more likely to feel regret. Even though they were actually likely to achieve better objective outcomes, because of their focus, they were also less likely to be satisfied with the result—and more likely to feel regret.

Ask yourself: Are you a maximizer or a satisficer? Are you always looking over your shoulder to see how well other people are doing or are you happy with the choices you’ve made?  Looking for “good enough” may be one way of keeping regret to a minimum.

Schwartz and his co-authors developed a regret scale for their study which I share below. Ask yourself these questions and see where you fall:

  1. Whenever I make a choice, I’m curious about what would have happened if I’d chosen differently.
  2. Whenever I make a choice, I try to get information about how other alternatives turned out.
  3. If I make a choice and it turns out well, I still feel like something of a failure if I find out another choice would have turned out better
  4. When I think about how I’m doing in life, I often assess opportunities I have passed up.
  5. Once I make a decision, I don’t look back.
Copyright the Author
Source: Copyright the Author

As you can see, these attitudes either open the door to regret or, in the case of the final item, close it firmly.

At the end of the day, each of us will regret something we did or didn’t do or say—the road taken or not taken. Perhaps the most important thing is to make sure that regret pushes us toward greater self-knowledge and action, not stasis.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2015

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  • Roese, Neal J. et. al. “Repetitive regret, depression, and anxiety: findings from a nationally representative survey.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (2009).28, 671-688.
  • Zeelenberg, Marcel and Rik Pieters, “ A Theory of Regret Regulation 1.0” Journal of Consumer Psychology (2007), 17, no. 1, 3-15.
  • Pieters, Rik and Marcel Zeelenberg,, “ A Theory of Regret Regulation 1.1” Journal of Consumer Psychology (2007), 17, no. 1, 29-35.
  • Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011.
  • Gilovic, Thomas and Victoria Hysted Medvec, “The Experience of Regret: What, When, and Why.” Psychological Review (1995), 102, no.2, 379-395.
  • Schwartz, Barry, Andrew Ward, et. al.,”Maximizing Versus Satisficing: Happiness is A Matter of Choice,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, n0.5, 1178-1197.