Before FOMO (fear of missing out) was even a thing, I had a similar anxiety — the fear of future regret. When I was in college and my early 20s, I made a conscious decision not to miss out on once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Somewhere deep down I knew that if I didn't take that opportunity to study abroad in the Middle East or attempt to break into Hollywood screenwriting after graduation, that I would regret it later.
Turns out I might have been on to something. According to growing research on the science of regret, we humans are far more likely to experience gnawing feelings of regret for things that we didn't do (inaction) than mistakes that we made along the way (actions). And those regrets cut much deeper and last much longer when those inactions are perceived as failures to live up to an idealized version of ourselves.
What Is Regret?
First, let's define regret. Marcel Zeelenberg, a scholar of economic psychology and behavioral economics, defines regret as "the negative, cognitively based emotion that we experience when realizing or imagining that our present situation would have been better had we acted differently... Because of this cognitive process of comparing outcomes to 'what might have been' regret has been called a counterfactual emotion."
"Counterfactual" means something that didn't happen. So the emotion of regret can be triggered by thoughts of an alternative, presumably better reality that didn't come to pass because we were too scared/lazy/stupid to take action in the past.
While lingering regrets can make us feel lousy, scientists believe the pain of regret serves an important evolutionary purpose. Giorgio Coricelli at the University of Southern California is a neuroeconomist who studies the role of regret in decision making. He writes that emotions, rather than interfering with our ability to make rational decisions, can in fact nudge us toward behaving even more rationally.
The aching feeling of regret, it turns out, can be a great teacher. Over time, the pain of past experience will prompt us to act differently in the future. On an evolutionary level, if our distant ancestors regretted dropping a rock on their foot or losing their mate to a rival, they would learn to make better future decisions that were more likely to ensure their survival and reproductive success. In a similar way, if you regret not asking Jessica to the prom in high school, you may be less likely to chicken out with the new girl in accounting.
In 2017, social psychologist Shai Davidai at the New School for Social Research published a cool paper on regret with his colleague Thomas Gilovich at Cornell University. The paper includes a quote from "The Top Five Regrets of the Dying," a book written by palliative nurse Bonnie Ware. The most commonly cited deathbed regret was, "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."
Action vs. Inaction
By surveying dozens of adults of different ages, Davidai and Gilovich confirmed Ware's anecdotal evidence that the most painful regrets are most often caused by inaction rather than action. But going a step further, Davidai and Gilovich identified a certain subset of regrets as the most enduring — those that highlight the distance between our actual self and the ideal self we always dreamed of becoming.
The research is based on the idea that we all carry around three different perceptions of self: our actual self, our "ought" self and our "ideal" self. The ought self is the person we believe we should be based on societal and personal expectations of duty and responsible behavior. The ideal self is the person we dream of becoming by realizing all of our hopes, goals and aspirations. Regrets inevitably form in the perceived distance between our actual selves and these ought and ideal selves.
From the survey results, Davidai and Gilovich concluded that regrets related to our ideal self are much more psychologically pernicious, and offered several theories as to why:
- "Ought"-based regrets are initially felt much more strongly, such as the regret of cheating on a spouse or not visiting a dying relative. And because they produce such a "hot" psychological response, people are more likely to take steps to address or lessen the regret by apologizing or rationalizing the behavior. In that way, the regret doesn't fester over time.
- "Ideal"-related regrets, on the other hand, don't provoke a strongly negative psychological response at first. If you regret taking a boring summer internship instead of going on that wild European backpacking trip with your friends, the initial psychological sting may be relatively cold. After all, it was the prudent thing to do. It's only over time, as you repeatedly hear stories from that trip, or watch movies with characters who have unforgettable experiences traveling abroad, that the unresolved regret balloons into something bigger.
- Also, the distance between our ideal self and our actual self will always be greater than the distance between our ought self and our actual self. We often set unattainable aspirations for ourselves, like overcoming shyness to become a famous actor, or overcoming a lifelong hatred of exercise to become a marathon runner. And even when we achieve more realistic expectations, the authors write, "[we] often develop new ones that are harder to meet."
Not everybody experiences regret in the same way, and some of that may come down to how our individual brains respond to regretful experiences. Researchers have conducted several neuroimaging studies to identify the areas of the brain responsible for producing feelings of regret and the top contender is a region called the lateral orbitofrontal cortex.
Hamdi Eryilmaz, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, ran some of these neuroimaging studies, which use fMRI machines to scan people's brain activity as they play gambling exercises designed to induce feelings of regret. He says that the lateral orbitofrontal cortex lights up with elevated activity when people feel regret, and that the effect is stronger and longer-lasting in people who self-report a tendency to "ruminate" or overthink past decisions.
In an email, Eryilmaz says that we don't yet know exactly how the brain uses its neurotransmitters to trigger the emotional sting of regret, but there's evidence that the "orbitofrontal cortex both mediates the experience of regret and also anticipation of regret." And it's the anticipation of regret that helps us avoid collecting even more regrets in the future.