We've all been there—the "Oh, [expletive]" moment. Perhaps the door just shut and your keys are still sitting on the counter. Or you get to the subway/bus stop just as your mass transit mode of choice is pulling away. Perhaps you've left your wallet at home, and there are blue lights flashing in your rear view mirror. Or maybe your expletive moment is a bit darker: a broken promise, a hurt friend, or a damaged relationship through some fault of your own. After all, regret is all about you and what you could have done differently. It can certainly vary in intensity, but we've all been there a time or two. Regret is a hard emotion to avoid. It is a curious emotion—a mixture of disappointment, shame, sadness, and self blame, and it can be both a hindrance and provide a much needed push in the face of opportunity. Does the experience of regret serve a purpose? Is it a necessary element of sociality?
One researcher suggests that there are two main forms of regret (1). The first is a "hot emotion" that carries a blow. For example, it's what you feel when you suffer a loss because you didn't follow instructions or seek guidance. It's the punch to the diaphragm as you think about the things you could have done differently, or that sinking feeling of despair as you're confronted with disappointment. The second is a form of wistful thinking. "If only" fills this category: If only I had taken the time to check where my keys were or if only I had walked away from that argument. Common to both forms is a sense that something could have been done differently. That is the nature of regret: the belief that a negative outcome is the result of one's own actions, and could have been avoided if one had taken an alternative path (2, 3).
The role of regret in decision-making is twofold. On one hand, it can be limiting. We tend to overgeneralize negative results, and so it may be that one poor choice can prevent you from taking any action that remotely resembles the regrettable course (4). For example, you may refrain from giving advice if your suggestion doesn't go as planned. Or you may stop purchasing a particular brand if you have problems with one of their products. Or you may avoid a particular topic if others seemed to have responded poorly to those ideas in the past. In this context, regret can easily become consuming. That is, the individual can be so focused on what he did wrong and what he would do differently, that it immobilizes him, rendering him incapable of accepting and resolving the situation. On the other hand, it can make us more attuned to missed opportunities. For example, if you paid more for something because the sale expired as you waited to see if the price would drop further, you may be less inclined to wait going forward. Or if you realize that you should have spoken up to prevent a friend from being hurt, you may decide to speak up sooner if it means saving a friendship.
Regret seems to operate as a social gauge. It may serve as a flag that a transgression has occurred that would not be acceptable on a continued basis. If this is indeed the case, then it may be possible to conceive of regret as a form of social apology, particularly if the regret is public—that is, if the regret is the result of an act that makes you look badly or lose status or standing, then regret may be a form of "remedial self-preservation" (5). In accepting blame for the event, the actor vilifies himself:
Apologies split the self into two parts, a "bad" self that is vilified for the incident and a "good" self that proclaims a recognition of the misconduct and extends a promise (often implicit) of more acceptable behavior in the future (6).
In this regard, regret is a personal assessment of perceived external judgment. It cannot be assigned, like blame. Regret is something we take upon ourselves. And the human tendency is to assume the worst: "People routinely overestimate the emotional impact of negative events ranging from professional failures and romantic breakups to electoral losses, sports defeats, and medical setbacks" (7). So we ultimately determine what to regret and what not to regret. If regret is consuming, is it because we allow it to be so?
Perhaps then regret stems from a conflict between this assessment and the true desires of the individual. It is possible to want something that society tells you is inappropriate—of course, we've moved beyond the regret of forgotten keys at this point, but regret truly does seem to exist on a sliding scale. More than just wistful thinking, which is a past-oriented perspective, regret may very much be rooted in the present in a sense of futility—firmly ensconced in the inability to pursue that which you desire most for whatever reason.
What are your thoughts on this emotion? Is it better to take a chance and pursue what you desire? Or should we wrestle with regret?
[Edit: "Better" is a strong judgment. And it belies my own feelings that regret is often a wasted emotion. You can't change what has already come to pass. You can only learn and hopefully make decisions that leave you with fewer moments of wistfulness and greater satisfaction. But these are my thoughts. Your thoughts are most certainly welcome on this matter.]
Gilbert DT, Morewedge CK, Risen JL, & Wilson TD (2004). Looking Forward to Looking Backward: The Misprediction of Regret. Psychological science, 15 (5), 346-50 PMID: 15102146
John Sabini and Maury Silver (2005). Why Emotion Names and Experiences Don't Neatly Pair Psychological Inquiry, 16 (1), 1-10
Schlenker, Barry, & Darby, Bruce (1981). The Use of Apologies in Social Predicaments. Social Psychology Quarterly, 44 (3), 271-278 DOI: 10.2307/3033840
1. Sabini and Silver (2005): 9.
2. Gilbert et. al. (2004): 346.
3. Sabini: 7.
4. Gilbert: 346.
5. Schlenker and Darby 1981: 271.
6. Schlenker and Darby: 272.
7. Gilbert: 346.