Regret is a negative emotion that one feels when one realizes or believes that an outcome could have been better if one had chosen differently (Connolly & Zeelenberg, 2002). The judgment behind regret is “I should have done differently.” One is motivated to undo the harm and to do things differently in the future.
The following reasons are commonly found why we regret:
1. The near-miss effect
The nearer one comes to achieve a goal, the greater the regret one experiences. For example, missing a train by 5 minutes seems worse to most of us than missing it by half an hour. Bronze medalists, on average, tend to be happier when receiving their medals than silver medalists (Medvec et al., 1995).
2. Feelings of responsibility
The more control you felt you had over the outcome of an event, the greater the regret you experience if the outcome turned out badly. These are cases where one had responsibility for the choice and might have done something to avoid it (Lewis, 2016).
3. Lost opportunities
When people look back on their lives, their failures to act cause greater grief (e.g., should have stayed in school, should have asked her out). Opportunity breeds regret (Roese & Summerville, 2005). In a world of scarcity, choosing one thing means giving up something else. Once a commitment to a choice is made, available opportunities become psychologically unavailable and represent lost opportunities. For example, many students regret switching from a correct answer to an incorrect answer more than they regret staying with an incorrect answer.
4. Changeable decisions
Too many choices can confuse and make decisions worse. Shoppers are happier when they can’t get refunds (Gilbert & Ebert, 2002). Reversible decisions interfere with our ability to justify our choice, resulting in reduced satisfaction.
5. Social belonging
We feel greater regret for decisions that involve a threat to our senses of social belonging (e.g., romantic or family relationships) than those in less social domains (e.g., work, education) (Morrison et al., 2012).
Regret guides better decision-making
Although the emotion of regret is directed toward the past, psychologists have argued that this emotion has an important effect on our future lives.
Anticipated regret. In some choices people aim to minimize anticipated regret (practice safer sex, or avoid consuming too much alcohol). Anticipated regret is one of the most important determinants of choice (Koch, 2014). Many instances of prolonged hesitations, and of continued reluctance to take positive action, should probably be explained in the anticipation of regret.
Do it right the next time. Having experienced regret over a choice, we may choose differently when faced with a similar choice again. Psychologists suggest that the capacity to acknowledge what is regrettable in life emerges from maturity and contributes to maturation itself (King & Hicks, 2007). Regretting lost opportunities reminds people not to lose out on other current opportunities. Thus, regret motivates people to seize the day.
Shahram Heshmat Ph.D. is an associate professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
This article appeared in psychologytoday.com on 4 January 2016