The force of 'If Only'
We make thousands of decisions in our daily life. These include not just about what to eat for breakfast, what to wear to office, when to schedule the team meetings, which websites to go to read articles but also the more important ones such as when to switch to another job, who to marry, and where to invest. One emotion that accompanies most decisions is regret. It is experienced when one compares what is with what might have been and is accompanied by a feeling of self-blame that one should have known better. After hiring one candidate over the other for one’s team, the manager might experience regret upon learning that the unchosen candidate, who joined the other team, had performed significantly better.
The one factor that is crucial for experiencing the feeling of regret is ‘counterfactual thinking’ that happens from a comparison of what actually happens against what else might have happened. One striking example of this is the research on the feelings that Olympic medalists feel. Researchers found that the bronze medalists, on average, showed more positive feelings that the silver medalists. This counterintuitive observation has been explained by the reference points that the two use for comparison. The bronze medalists make downward comparisons (‘I just made the cutoff or else I might have not won the award’) while the silver medalists do upward comparisons (‘I missed the cutoff or else I might have won the gold’).
Empirical studies have also shown that the degree of regret is influenced by whether the regret results from action (being active) or inaction (being passive). In particular, regret from actions has been found to be stronger than regret from inaction. As an example, consider two investors both of whom lost money in their investment. One lost due to buying a particular stock, while the other as a result of holding onto the same stock. In general, people expected larger levels of regret for the active investor rather than the passive one. This also explains the safety, comfort, and preference that we have for maintaining the default status quo and avoiding any change.
In addition to experiencing regret in retrospect, one can imagine and predict the regret from future outcomes even before making decisions. We are aversive to regret and select alternatives that minimize the predicted future regret. In the hiring example above, the manager would select the candidate for which she anticipates experiencing the least regret in the future. A considerable body of research has shown that such anticipated regret can have a strong influence on decision making in a variety of domains such as law, medicine, marketing, and organizations.
Related to this idea of predicting the future regret, there is large evidence available now that we tend to make forecasting errors. Specifically, we underestimate our adaptation abilities to return to our base emotional states. We overestimate the intensity and the duration of negative emotions we might feel if undesirable events happen. Another error has to do with time. You might recall the viral videos and articles about the regret patterns of people close to the end of their lives. When looking back to one’s early years, people experienced most regret over the paths not taken and chances missed (contrary to the prediction of action regret being more in the short-term).
Regret is undoubtedly a negative emotion. Several strategies could be used to regulate the feelings of regret. One way is to have a clear decision-making process. The final outcome of one’s decision is dependent on too many external uncertain factors. One can have good or bad luck and that is beyond one’s control. What can be improved is how the decision is made. A clear careful process would reduce the self-blame involved. Outline the pros and cons. Get expert advice. Remove extraneous noise. Find a way to aggregate the information. Create discipline to follow through the plan.
Even when we perform objectively better, regret can create inconsistencies about how we end up feeling about it (such as in the case of medalists). Even though we are constantly reminded to live a life without regrets, it is quite unlikely that we are able to do so in reality. Just the mere fact of choosing between different options creates the possibility of mentally simulating how life would have been in the other instances. In all this, one thing that is worth remembering is John Barrymore’s quote “A man in not old until regrets take the place of dreams”.
Dr. Kriti Jain