Magazine article Psychology Today

The Road to Regret

Magazine article Psychology Today

The Road to Regret

Article excerpt


MISTAKES, MISSTEPS, AND bad decision-making are part of life, and the feeling of regretis never far behind. While regret is a negative emotion, it can also motivate us to take positive action. "If only I'd left the first time she lied to me." Now you're sure to be mindful of dishonest) in future relationships. "I won't let an opportunity like that slip away again." Now you will be more open to the options before you. Of course, regret can also stop us, leaving us to mourn what we didn't do.

Unlike joy, fear, and sadness, regret isn't wired into our makeup; babies don't feel or express regret, and there's no universal facial expression for it, either. Around the age pf 7, children first experience regret using the "if-then" thinking we all know too well. But what evokes the most regret and inner turmoil: Is it about action taken or is it about plain inaction? Research by Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky showed that 92 percent of subjects they studied believed a person would feel more regret if a loss were tied to action, rather than inaction. Research done by Thomas Gilovich, at Cornell, and Victoria Husted Medvec at Northwestern also looked at regret. Their work shows that, in the long run, people regret inaction the most; and in the short term, they regret their actions that turn out badly.

Regrets come in all sizes, from tiny to life-altering. It's one thing to regret not sending a birthday card to your niece and quite another to regret marrying your spouse. It's the big regrets that we can't take back, or change, that are the hardest to process.

One study from a team led by Neal Roese, also at Northwestern, looked at the kind of regret that is linked to depres- sion and other emotional disorders. The researchers focused on the connection between specific regrets, those that included a component of self-blame, and excessive rumination-like continuous regret over not marrying your high school sweetheart. They found that because women tend to ruminate more than men, they engage in repetitive regrets more. In addition, Roese's findings underscore the connection between repetitive regrets and emotional distress.

Whether regret yields negative or positive results may depend on personality factors. Researchers think that personality influences both how regretful you feel and how you manage your feelings of regret. A team led by psychologists Barry Schwartz and Andrew Ward, both at Swarthmore, looked at how the prospect of regret influences behavior. …

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