Regret feels bad. That fact is so obvious that it hardly needs explaining. When you think about how you could acted differently to make things better, that just feels bad. Perhaps because regret feels bad, you can find lots of people advocating living without regret. (A Google search for “live life without regrets” turns up millions of results.) After all, we’d all rather feel good than bad.
But ignoring or blocking your regrets might deprive you of their benefits. As you move into the new year, you might make better resolutions and be more able to keep them by reflecting on how your past behavior has prevented you from achieving your goals and thinking about how your future behavior might lead to new failures. In doing this, you will be taking advantage of two of regrets’ strongest benefits: improving on your past mistakes and avoiding new ones.
To understand the difference between these two effects, it’s useful to make a distinction between counterfactual thinking and prefactual thinking. When you recall the past and think about how it could have been different if only you’d made a different choice (for example, how you could have gone on vacation this year if only you hadn’t gone out to eat as much), you are engaging in counterfactual thinking. When you think about the regret you might feel about a choice you are about to make (for example, how you will resent the purse-tightening you will have to do if you rent a more expensive apartment), you are engaging in prefactual thinking. It turns out that both the regret felt during counterfactual thinking and the regret anticipated in prefactual thinking influence our behavior and decision-making in generally positive ways.
Counterfactual thinking arises spontaneously when we encounter a problem (Roese & Hur, 1997). For example, when I check my January bank account balance and realize that I might not be able to afford a vacation this year, I spontaneously begin to think about all of the frivolous things I spent money on in the past year—trips to Starbucks, clothes that I haven’t worn, expensive groceries—and regret them. What’s important about this process is that it implies a causal link between my regretted behavior (frivolous spending) and my problem (no vacation). Since I’ve identified a causal mechanism linking my behavior to my problem, I am now better equipped to correct both my behavior (spend more carefully) and, consequently, my problem (afford a vacation) by forming intentions that allow me to behave better in the future (Epstude & Roese, 2008). Although regret might feel bad in the short term, it equips us with the understanding needed to improve our behavior and our outcomes in the future.
Several studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of anticipated regret in reducing risky behaviors. For example, psychologists have found that thinking about how you will feel after unsafe sex is a better deterrent than simply thinking about your feelings about unsafe sex itself (Richard, van der Pligt, & de Vries, 1996). Thinking about the regret they will feel after unsafe sex not only made participants form intentions to have safer sex, it actually influenced their behavior, leading to safer sexual practices.
More recent work has demonstrated that the effects of anticipated regret on decision-making are due to more careful thinking during the decision. Participants in one study were asked to pick one of two investment options (Reb, 2008). Although several pieces of information were available for both investment choices, participants had to click on a link to access each piece of information, meaning that learning about the choices involved deliberate investment of time and effort. Before beginning, however, some of the participants were asked to think about how much they might regret choosing the worse option. Participants who were asked to anticipate their regret took 42% more time (almost a minute longer) to reach their decision and sought out about a third more information before deciding. Even more telling was that participants in the regret condition sought out more relevant information (e.g., past performance of the funds they were choosing between). So when participants were asked to think about the regret they might feel after their decisions, they became more careful and more informed about the decision.
Ignoring or attempting to eliminate your felt or anticipated regret is a bad strategy if your goal is self-improvement and well-being. Regret serves an important function in self-regulation. By making the consequences of our behaviors salient and painful, regret inspires us to think carefully about our decisions and improve our behaviors. By listening to your regrets now, you can avoid feeling even more regret in the future.
Epstude, K., & Roese, N. J. (2008). The functional theory of counterfactual thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12, 168–192. doi:10.1177/1088868308316091
Reb, J. (2008). Regret aversion and decision process quality: Effects of regret salience on decision process carefulness. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 105, 169–182. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2007.08.006
Richard, R., van der Pligt, J., & de Vries, N. K. (1996). Anticipated regret and time perspective: Changing sexual risk-taking behavior. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 9, 185–199.
Roese, N. J., & Hur, T. (1997). Affective determinants in counterfactual thinking. Social Cognition, 15, 274-290. doi: 10.1521/soco.19126.96.36.1994