Having No Regrets Means Having Not Lived

December 21, 2019

Frank Sinatra had a few (albeit too few to mention). We’re talking regrets. By the dictionary, regret is defined as feeling sorry or unhappy about something you did or were unable to do. The word “regret” probably originated in the Old Norse word “grata,” to weep.

Regret presents as an emotion, a feeling, yet generating it requires heavy cognitive lifting. To feel regret, we have to conjure up some alternative scenarios (“counterfactuals,” or “possible worlds,” in psychology speak) in which the choice we’ve made and the outcome we got are undone and other choices and outcomes happened. We then have to make a judgment, a decision about how those possible choices and outcomes compare with the actual one. If one of them appears to us to be better, then we may experience regret. For its cognitive complexity, regret appears deeply human. You have a hard time imagining it in a zebra.

We regret most what is lost forever; those opportunities that existed in the past but no longer exist. Social regrets, particularly over romance, are the most common. Most often, our regrets are linked to specific actions, taken or not taken.

Many people believe that in life, you regret what you didn’t do more than what you did. Research on regret (not to be confused with regretful research, a separate issue), however, paints a more nuanced picture. In fact, classic work by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky has shown that on the whole, we regret negative outcomes more when they are a result of action compared to inaction. This is known as the Action Effect (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982). More recent research, however, has shown that the Action Effect holds mostly for the short term. In the long term, an Inaction Effect emerges, whereby we regret more what we haven’t done.

Action and inaction effects may factor differently in different types of decisions. For example, research has shown that people’s material purchases are more likely to generate regrets of action (i.e., “buyer’s remorse”) while experiential purchase decisions are more likely to produce regrets of inaction.

Regret experiences cut quite similarly across genders, yet some consistent gender differences exist. For example, women more than men report love rather than work regrets. Women are more prone to regret casual sex than men. Moreover, with casual sex, men regret inaction over action while women regret inaction and action similarly. Casual sex regrets are brought on mostly by feelings of worry, disgust, and being pressured. They’re lessened when one is the initiator, finds the partner competent, and feels sexually gratified.

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