I Wish… Psychology of Regret
Do you ever look back and wish you could have done some things differently? Perhaps you wish that you studied a little more or went on that trip with your friends or got your haircut at another place…
Regret is a feeling that haunts us all at some point in our lives. Whether it is over small or big decisions, our biggest regrets lie in the opportunities that we missed.
Regret is an interesting emotion because it makes us think more than feel. When we regret a decision that we made, we start to play a comparison game while mind-juggling alternative scenarios of what could-should-would have happened if we just did things differently. Self-blame, disappointment, sadness and pain can also accompany regret.
We feel regret in response to what might have been, explains Tilburg University researcher Marcel Zeelenberg in his talk for TEDx at College of Europe Natolin. According to Zeelenberg, this unusual emotion almost always shows up when we have choices.
Study or go to your friend’s birthday party? Wake up early or pull an all-nighter to get work done? Stay in a relationship or move on?
It is impossible to eliminate regret completely however we can make wiser decisions if we know what triggers feelings of regret the most.
Action vs inaction
We feel regret to various degrees depending on variables like choice and control. Let’s say that you decided to walk to work instead of taking the bus and it started to rain. Perhaps you think to yourself, “I should have taken my umbrella” or “I should have taken the bus.” The rain was out of your control and there is really nothing you can do about that. On the other hand, taking an umbrella with you would be in your control so it is likely to cause some feelings of regret however, you will probably regret your decision to walk more because now you know that you “should have” taken the bus.
According to studies done by researchers Thomas Gilovich and Victoria Medvec from Cornell University, inaction (failure to grab an opportunity) causes more regret in the long term as opposed to action (saying or doing things that made us feel embarrassed or bad in some way). Through their studies, Gilovich and Medvec found that people mostly regret missed educational opportunities, failure to seize the moment, not spending enough time with friends and family, missed romantic opportunities and not pursuing a specific interest.
Actions, on the other hand, cause more pain in the short term. Gilovich and Medvec found that making bad educational choices, rushing in too soon, spending time badly and having unwise romantic adventures elicit feelings of regret in most people.
How to deal with regret
If we dwell on the past for too long, it might be harder to find the motivation to act differently in the future. The key to dealing with regret is to practice acceptance.
Acceptance in this context can be defined as a willingness to stay present to the negative emotion rather than avoid it. Studies by researcher Amanda Shallcross from the University of Denver and colleagues suggest that accepting negative experiences may protect people from experiencing negative emotions. In one of their studies, Shallcross and colleagues worked with a group of women who were at risk for developing depression. What they found is that acceptance does protect highly stressed individuals from developing depression.
When dealing with feelings of regret, recognize that some things are just out of your control and you cannot change the past. On the other hand, it is crucial to give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel during moments when ideas about the question, “what if?” start to percolate through your mind. Letting the feeling be a reminder that you can do better in the future may help you to deal with regret more easily.
Do you have any regrets?
- 1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPCV3Oe1fYw
- 2. Gilovich, T. & Medvec, V. H. (1994). The temporal pattern to the experience of regret. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67 (3), 357-365.
- 3. Hayes, S. C, Wilson, K. G, Gifford, E. V, Follette, V. M, & Strosahl, K. D. (1996). Experiential avoidance and behavioral disorders: a functional dimensional approach to diagnosis and treatment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 1152–1168
- 4. Shallcross, A. J., Troy, A. S., Boland, M., & Mauss, I. B. (2010). Let it be: Accepting negative emotional experiences predicts decreased negative affect and depressive symptoms. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 48 (9), 921-929. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2010.05.025