The saying 'it's better to have loved and lost than never have loved at all' is true, scientists say.
The pain of lost chances lingers on far longer than the short term regret of doing something wrong according to the study by two U.S. universities.
And painful as they are, regrets can actually spur us on to future success, by ensuring that we take chances in the future to avoid missing out on career or love success.
Researchers identified two different types of regret - action regrets, based on something which had actually happened, and inaction regrets, which concerned something a person didn't do but wishes they had.
They surveyed 370 adults, evenly split between genders, who were asked to discuss one strong regret in detail, whether it was an action or inaction regret and how long the pain lasted for afterwards.
The most common regrets were about love, education and work.
Romantic regrets proved particularly painful, with many of those interviewed dwelling on lost chances for potential romances, or relationships that didn't work out. And results, published in the SAGE journal, revealed that action regrets were initially very painful, but didn't linger as long as inaction regrets.
They also showed that 'love outcomes were regretted more than career outcomes' and that action regrets were more severe when they resulted in a big personal loss - such as that of a partner or loved one.
However, the authors also claimed that regrets - particularly inaction ones - can spur us onto future success, as they drive us to take chances and make sure we don't suffer the same feeling of missing out again.
Regrets of Omission
Another key finding had to do with whether people felt more regret about actions they did or did not take. Research by Victoria Medvec, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, had previously established a connection between time and regret: The more time that has passed since an event, the more likely people are to focus on what they failed to do, rather than what they actually did. “Lost opportunities linger in our memory longer,” Roese puts it. That is because people can quickly rationalize their actual actions, even when they went wrong. But for a possible action that was never taken, “there are so many ways in which you can see different things you could have done,” he explains.
He illustrates the concept with a romantic example—asking someone for a date. In remembering an unsuccessful attempt, an unlucky suitor might think, “I asked this person out on a date, she shot me down, it’s done.” But if he never even tried, the suitor might ponder all sorts of scenarios: “What if I had asked her when I saw her in the hallway? What if I had phoned right after we first met? What if I had sent flowers?”
Roese and Morrison’s new study analyzed people’s feelings about unrealized actions by asking respondents questions such as, “Does the regret focus on something you should have done, or something you should not have done?” and “When did the event happen that made you feel regret?” Through their broad sampling, Roese and Morrison found that the time disparity, too, applies to a wide cross-section regardless of race, education level, marital status, and age.
Morrison M, Roese NJ. Regrets of the typical American. Findings from a nationally representative sample. Social Psychological and Personality Science November 2011 vol. 2 no. 6 576-583.
In this study of regret among a representative sample of Americans, the authors examined hypotheses derived from regret regulation theory, which asserts that regrets motivate a range of ameliorative cognitive consequences. Using a random-digit telephone survey, respondents reported a salient regret, then answered questions about that regret. Results showed inaction regrets lasted longer than action regrets, and that greater loss severity corresponded to more inaction regrets. Regrets more often focused on nonfixable than fixable situations. Women more than men reported love rather than work regrets and, overall, regrets more often focused on romance than on other life domains. Objective life circumstances (referenced by demographic variables) predicted regret in patterns consistent with regret regulation theory. These results complement laboratory findings while suggesting new refinements to existing theory.
Beike DR, Markman KD, Karadogan F. What we regret most are lost opportunities:
a theory of regret intensity. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2009 Mar;35(3):385-97.
A recent theory (Roese & Summerville, 2005) has suggested that regret is intensified by perceptions of future opportunity. In this work, however, it is proposed that feelings of regret are more likely elicited by perceptions of lost opportunity: People regret outcomes that could have been changed in the past but can no longer be changed and for which people experience low psychological closure. Consistent with the lost opportunity principle, Study 1 revealed that regretted experiences in the most commonly regretted life domains are perceived as offering the least opportunity for improvement in the future, Study 2 indicated that people experience the most regret for outcomes that are not repeatable, and Study 3 revealed that perceptions of higher past than future opportunities and low psychological closure predict regret intensity. Discussion focuses on the hope-inducing yet ephemeral nature of perceived future opportunity and on the relationship between dissonance reduction and closure.