The hidden power of regret

How this otherwise crushing emotion can help us make life-altering decisions

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“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” — Sydney J. Harris

Among the many emotions that we experience, regret is an especially painful one. Other emotions tend to be fleeting or are wiped away by time, but regret seems persistent. Even after years or decades have passed, it seems to maintain its potency. Why is it so?

It all comes down to how easily we can imagine a counterfactual possibility; that is, an outcome that could have happened instead, but didn’t. The potency of regret we feel depends on this availability of alternate outcomes. Contrast this with a situation where you had only one option: if the outcome doesn’t go your way, you might feel disappointment but not regret because there just wasn’t anything else you could have done.

So well-honed is our ability to ruminate on what could’ve been that even minor annoyances are enough to trigger pangs of regret. If you’ve ever tried a new route to work and gotten stuck in traffic as a result, you know what I’m talking about.

Given it’s so powerful, regret colors most decisions we make, especially where we must choose between multiple options. By their very nature, such situations give rise to counterfactuals in the form of options we did not pick and are therefore prime candidates for inducing regret. Adopting the attitude of a satisficer rather than a maximizer is the only way to escape this outcome.

At a broader level however, regret can be understood through the difference between acts of commission and omission. The former type is when an outcome is a result of us doing something whereas the latter points to outcomes that happened because we did nothing.

In our daily lives the concept of regret manifests itself mostly in terms of commission, i.e. the things we did wrong — the words said in anger, the last drink that tipped us over, the investment that lost us money. In a world where we’re supposed to take individual responsibility, it’s obvious that what we do should cause more regret compared to what we did not do, right?

Well, not exactly. Enough studies have proven that most people seem to regret not doing things much more than the things they actually did. More poignantly, testimonies taken from the elderly prove the same: when you look back on your life, what you regret most are the things you could have done, but did not do.

There is a simple explanation for why acts of omission cause more regret — the failure of the psychological immune system (PIS). Similar to the physical immune system, this is a mechanism that the psyche uses to help us deal with negative events. By helping us construct stories that place our actions in a more favorable light, the PIS allows us to recover from setbacks. This is why we are able to pick up the pieces after a failure and move on.

In the case of inaction, however, the PIS isn’t able to kick in because it has no reason to: what does it explain away when there aren’t any actions to explain? By losing the palliative effect of the PIS, we are left struggling with regret over missed opportunities. In simple words, you are actually wired to feel more pain when you realize you didn’t take an action when you could have.

Turning it around

Knowledge of how regret works is a powerful tool, provided we use it effectively. As you ponder the choices life throws at you, think how an older you would evaluate them. Would that person in the future advise you to take those chances?

If you are unconvinced of this way of thinking, know that this is exactly how one man decided to start what is now one of the largest companies on earth. Jeff Bezos has spoken publicly about his regret minimization framework and how he used it to decide whether to take the entrepreneurial plunge:

I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried.

The lesson? Learn to anticipate regret and use that as fuel to move forward. The worst that can happen is you will fail and learn a few things along the way. That’s an absolute bargain compared to the alternative: wondering what might have been.

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