The Psychology of Regret

Nadine Ryser, LPC on May 20, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

Regret is an important psychological experience that is often misunderstood. The old adage “live life without any regrets” and the corresponding mantra “let it go” suggest, in my opinion, an oversimplified and negatively biased approach to regret. Typically viewed as a sense of loss that arises following a mistake or poor choice, regret is considerably more complex. What follows is a summary of the latest thinking on the psychology of regret. Emerging from this work is the view that regret, under most circumstances, is valuable and should not be pathologized. Regret serves as a source of insight and learning, and it supports the development of an increasing sensitivity to the value and worth of opportunities, relationships, and the fragility of life.

The Definition of Regret

Recent theoretical writings on regret center on its counterfactual nature. The term “counterfactual” implies that, in order for regret to emerge, there must be an imagined or idealized outcome that has not occurred; hence, regret involves the cognitive and emotional recognition that something desirable did not take place, and this negative outcome is perceived to be due to something one has done (or not done). According to Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error and presenter of the compelling TED Talk “Don’t Regret Regret,” regret involves two main components: imagination (i.e., the idea, vision, or fantasy of something one would have wanted) and self-agency (i.e., the belief that that idea, vision, or fantasy could have been attained if one had acted more advantageously).

Action vs. Inaction

Researchers have found that there are essentially two forms of regret:

  • regret for what one did not do, including missing/not taking advantage of opportunities when they arose (inaction)
  • regret for what one did, including mistakes, poor choices, missteps, etc. (action)

The Impact of Time

As it turns out, the amount of time that has lapsed is related to what form of regret is more likely to occur.

For shorter periods of time (e.g., within the last year or so), people are more likely to regret actions they took, including mistakes they made, more so than opportunities that were lost.

With the passage of longer periods of time, people tend to regret their inactions more so than their mistakes.

The Function of Regret

Regret is viewed by many experts to be a mental phenomenon conditioned by evolution. That is, it is an evolutionary advantage for a species to learn from pervious mistakes and to remember those mistakes so as to avoid future related mistakes. Past experience lingers as a cautionary tale, paving the way for better choices and actions likely taken with more forethought, awareness, and wisdom. Interestingly, psychological research indicates that while people often view regret to be distressing, regret nevertheless is rated as a “positive” emotional experience.

Three Selves

The research of Davidai and Gilovich has led to the view that three different “perceptions of self” exist in the psyche: our actual self, our ought self, and our ideal self. Regret is typically based on the degree to which your ideal self (the person you dreamed of becoming — what you believe you COULD BE) diverges from your actual self (the person you are in reality). The ought self (the person you feel you SHOULD BE based on your family history, personal values, religious beliefs, etc.) is responsible for regret that occurs when the actions you have taken conflict with your own moral values. Moreover, since many people develop an ideal self that is greatly exaggerated and unrealistic, self-loathing due to what has not been achieved is not uncommon.

When Is Regret Problematic?

In her TED Talk, Schulz summarizes scientific research indicating that the onset and persistence of regret typically moves through a sequence of phases, which include (1) denial (just make the bad thing I did or poor decision I made go away); (2) bewilderment (a sense of alienation in which a person cannot believe they participated or caused some situation or outcome to occur, i.e., a sense of being out of one’s mind); (3) the desire to punish oneself for a mistake or poor choice; and (4) ruminations (perseverating on what occurred, i.e., thinking about it over and over again, often with self-contempt). Regret becomes problematic when chronic cycling between phases 3 and 4 occurs. Moreover, the less opportunity one has to change a negative situation he or she caused, the more likely ruminative cycling will occur, potentially leading to intense sorrow, self-degradation, anxiety, and depression.

Nadine Ryser is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Denver, CO.

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