Research Highlight: How to Experience Less Regret

We all have regrets. Sometimes those regrets can even haunt you. So let’s examine the research behind regret to see if we can start making wiser choices and regret less. Regret, as defined, is both a noun and a verb involving feelings of disappointment or sadness about something you did or did not do. In terms of opportunity, there are three stages of a potential regret situation. The first stage is action, followed by outcome, and finally the recall. At the action stage, a choice is made. If the choice is not completely up to the individual to decide, regret is not experienced (ie: someone made the choice for you or an unforeseen event such as weather impacted the choice). The choice is made using goal-based decision-making. At the outcome stage, it is made apparent whether the goal was successfully achieved or not. Regret is not experienced if the goal is achieved. If the goal fails, the “what-ifs” take over. During the recall stage, one can remember the regret of the decision and use that regret to make future decisions. Here are a few research-based tips on how to diminish regret:

  1. Don’t Change Your Mind – A Norwegian Master’s Thesis studied the impact of changing your mind on feelings of regret. The study used an economic game involving strategically splitting a defined sum of money with a stranger. The choice of amount had to be accepted or rejected by the the computer (acting as the stranger). Some people were given the opportunity to change their mind before the outcome (finding out whether the “stranger” accepted their amount or not) while others were not given the opportunity to change their mind. Those that changed their choice experienced more feelings of regret both before and after the outcome compared to those that did not change. A follow-up study in the same thesis found that even when changing your mind was actually the best strategy, people that did so experienced more regret that those that did not change. Study out the choice before you make it and then stick to it. The very act of being wishy-washy can lead to feelings of regret.
  2. Always Put Relationships First – A series of studies examined regrets about love and work in both high and low social impact situations. The series of studies concluded that regrets involving relationships and a sense of belonging are felt more deeply than other regrets. Also, the need to belong predicts regret intensity much more than the type of regret (ie: work or love). If a decision has a large social impact, you will regret it the most. When making a decision, keep people in mind. How will this decision impact your relationships?
  3. Approach Regret with the Right ImageryThree social psychology experiments looked at regrets of action and regrets of inaction and used different “imagery perspectives.” The study explains this: “Imagery perspective influences the degree to which people’s understanding of events is determined by features of the event itself (first-person) or by the integration of the event with broader self-knowledge (third-person).” The studies found that third-person imagery reduced regret for actions and increased regret for inactions. If you have your own regrets, define what kind of regret it is. If you regret something you did, use the third person imagery to place the event in a broader context by taking yourself out of it as much as possible. If you regret something that you didn’t do, use first-person imagery to think more simply about your own personal choice rather than the broader context of the impact of your inactions.
  4. Look to the future – A meta-analysis of regret studies (the same one that explains the three stages of opportunity-based regret referenced above) explains that considering future opportunities immediately after the outcome helps lessen the regret and also helps ensure the regret doesn’t last as long. If you discover you made the wrong choice, don’t let the “what-ifs” take over. Stop thinking about what life would be like if you had made a different decision. Instead, look at future possibilities. Learn from your mistakes and move on.

    Note: A lot of the linked studies are gated studies meaning full-text access is not publicly available. I usually reference material found in the full-text versions.

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2 Comments

  1. So glad you put the relationships piece in here. We’re both pretty good at being decisive and not second-guessing once we make a decision (though that may itself follow a long process of deliberation). Most of our regrets have come from how we’ve handled friends, or not given them enough time. It’s something we try to be better about now!

    • MaggieBanks

      I think the relationship regret carries with it the more global impact than the regret that comes from your own personal decisions. We feel badly when our actions negatively impact others. So, if we generally live with the idea that we can be good, helpful, and kind, I think we would all experience a lot less regret! 🙂

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