The New Year can be as much a time of regret as of renewal. While you are setting new resolutions, you might reflect on failed resolutions from the past—that weight you were supposed to lose or that language you were supposed to learn. And as you are returning to your normal schedule after the holidays, you might reflect on how that schedule could be better—if you got up earlier every morning, you might have more time to make a healthy breakfast at home, or if you rode your bike to work every day, you might be more fit.
As you reflect on the past year and prepare for the new one, you might ask: Are the things I regret really unique, or do we all regret the same sorts of things (lost love, missed opportunities)? Will reflecting on my regrets inspire me to do better or bog me down in the past and trap me in negativity? Psychologists have studied these questions extensively and have some interesting and inspiring answers. Over the next two posts, I will try to share some of what they have learned. Below, I focus on what regret is and what sorts of things people generally regret. Tomorrow, I will write about how regret may actually be helpful.
When psychologists study regret, they focus on specific decisions people have made in the past that could have turned out differently. For example, the decision of which college to attend or whether to apply for a specific job. Even though we don’t know what really would have happened if we had made different choices, it is easy to imagine how our could be different—and, perhaps especially, how they could be better—if only we had done things differently.
Although all regrets share this emphasis on how things might have been different, not all regrets are the same. Psychologists break these differences down into two types. Structural differences deal with the features of the regrets. How intense and important is the regret? Is the regret about actions or inactions? And does the regret relate to something you can still change or has the opportunity to do something about it passed? Content differences deal with what the regret is about—education, career, family, love, etc. Different kinds of regrets tend to last longer and be more powerful than others, and different people (e.g., men vs. women) tend to experience different kinds of regrets.
Unfortunately, a lot of the research on regrets has been done with college students, whose young age, educational status, and relative wealth probably means that they have different kinds of regrets than the typical person. However, a study released last year by Mike Morrison and Neal Roese used a nationally representative sample of Americans and came to some interesting conclusions about the “Regrets of the Typical American” (the title of their paper). I’ve summarized their findings below.
The most obvious structural difference is regret intensity. Some regrets are more intense and more important than others. For example, I feel more regret over not sticking up for a classmate in middle school than over sleeping in this morning.
Likewise, each of our regrets can be framed in two ways: as an action or an inaction. Did I sleep in this morning or did I not get up on time? Sleeping in is an action—something I regret doing—but not getting up on time is an inaction—something I regret not doing. It turns out that whether we think about our regrets as actions (sleeping in) or as inactions (not getting up on time) matters. Although people recall more action regrets in the short term, inaction regrets tend to last longer action regrets. So, today I might regret sleeping in, but over the long term, I will probably experience more regret about not making better use of mornings than about sleeping in. However, action regrets are associated with more severe losses. That is, when people think about past decisions that had major negative consequences, they are more likely to think about them in terms of action than inaction—for example, regretting getting divorced rather than regretting not doing more to save one’s marriage.
As time passes, the opportunities to correct some regrets gradually close. I cannot go back to middle school and treat my classmate differently, and I have no way to contact her now to tell her that I regret not defending her. However, I can stop sleeping in and make better use of my mornings, and the opportunity to change my morning habits will always be open to me. Although it might seem more useful to dwell on the latter (high opportunity regret) than the former (low opportunity regret), it turns out that people are more likely to report low opportunity regrets that they have little power to change than high opportunity regrets that they could change. This pattern becomes more pronounced the older the participants are, with the oldest participants overwhelmingly reporting low opportunity regrets, presumably because more opportunities have been foreclosed upon. The only group for whom high opportunity regrets were more common than low opportunity regrets were those who had not graduated high school.
Among college samples, educational regrets (failed classes, college choice, academic major, etc.) are the most frequent. However, Morrison and Roese found that educational regrets placed third among Americans as a whole. Both romance and family (in that order) beat education as a source of regret in the nationally representative sample. However, the amount of education participants had affected how likely they were to recall educational regrets and career regrets. Among those with less education, educational regrets were more common and career regrets less common than among those with more education. Men and women also differed in their regrets. Men reported more career regrets than women, and women reported more romance regrets than men.
To the right, you can see how frequently participants in Morrison and Roese’s study reported regrets in different life domains.
As you vow to improve your life in the new year, you might find yourself thinking about how the past could have been different. If you focus on what went wrong in the past year, you’re more likely to think about all of the things you did that you shouldn’t have done. But if you broaden your focus and look back further in time, you might find yourself thinking more about what you wish you had done but didn’t. And if you find yourself dwelling on past decisions that you can no longer change, you are not alone. But you might be better off thinking about behavior that you can change if you want to make a smart resolution.
Do you have different regrets than the typical American? Do you find yourself reflecting on the old year as you ring in the new one, and do you find this helpful?
Tomorrow, I’ll write a bit more about whether all of this thinking about the past is really good for us and how you can use your regrets to make positive changes in your life.
Morrison, M., & Roese, N. J. (2011). Regrets of the typical American: Findings from a nationally representative sample. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 576–583. doi:10.1177/1948550611401756