Why do we experience regret? If you’ve ever pondered this question, the answer may lie in your mirror.
I’m sure you’d agree that reflecting on past decisions may cause you to experience regret. But, have you ever wondered what processes are involved in feeling regret? This post will explore the psychology of regret and discuss exactly why people experience regret.
Why do we experience regret?
Here are some of the scientific theories relating to why people experience regret.
(1) The temporal theory of regret
Based to the temporal theory of regret, people are more likely to regret actions they took in the short term and regret the actions they didn’t take in the long term.
One possibility for this is that regret for actions can be compensated by new opportunities that occur over time, whereas regrets due to inaction increases with time.
According to research, regrets due to inaction are more frequent than those due to action. However, regrets relating to actions tend to be more intense (Towers et al., 2016).
Essentially, although you’ll likely be more emotionally affected temporarily from doing something you regret; the regret from not pursuing something your desire has a much greater chance of occurring.
|Regrets due to action||Regrets due to inaction|
|Less frequent||More frequent|
|More intense||Less intense|
If there’s something that you really want to do and have been avoiding taking action on, do it. Even if it doesn’t go as planned, you’ll feel better acting on that than if you had never made a decision at all.
“One of the greatest regrets in life is being what others would want you to be, rather than being yourself.” - Shannon L. Alder.
(2) The decision justification theory
This theory suggests that people regret the choices they make when the outcome is worse than expected. In this case, the intensity of regret will usually depend on how much you believe the action was justifiable.
For instance, if a person fails a test that he thought wasn’t really important and then realizes that this may stop him from graduating from university, he will feel much more regret than if they failed a test that didn’t impact their grade in any way.
To minimize regret, always try your best and have justifiable reasons for your choices.
(3) The belonging theory of regret
This theory states that people are more likely to be regretful when a decision threatens their sense of belonging.
For instance, you may regret turning down a social invitation from a close friend because it affects their relationship with the friend.
Whereas, if it was a person that wasn’t very close, they might not feel any regret at all.
This is due to the fact that people are more likely to care about actions that compromise their sense of belonging.
Trust your instincts and give more consideration to turning down opportunities involving those that are close to you.
Consider watching my video on the Psychology of Regret
Why is it important to understand the theories of regret?
Knowledge of what people most often regret and why, helps us be more deliberate when faced with choices ourselves.
In fact, we may avoid some bad decisions by imagining how we will feel if an outcome turns out badly; this is called counterfactual thinking (thinking about what would have happened if you had made a different choice).
By imagining a realistic alternate future, we may be able to reduce the intensity of our regret. Essentially, regret will let you learn from previous mistakes and improve your decision-making skills in the future.
According to research, although regret is often praised for promoting self-reflection and increasing well being, frequently experiencing the feeling of regret may lead to lower life satisfaction since it may be interpreted as a sign of repeated failure.
In fact, the higher frequency of regret was associated with lower life satisfaction. As such, for regret to be beneficial, self regulatory feelings such as are needed.
Notably, impulsivity was associated with higher likelihood of regret.
“There are two kinds of guilt: the kind that drowns you until you’re useless, and the kind that fires your soul to purpose.” - Sabaa Tahir
Why do we look back at all?
It’s no surprise that the act of self-reflecting can increase feelings of remorse and influence behavior.
Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact that some scholars argue that reflection is not needed to make wise choices.
In fact, some types of self-reflection do not lead to good choices. According to these authors, intuition and experience are much more beneficial (Bortolotti, 2011).
So, why do we look back?
There are several plausible explanations. Actually, many psychologists believe that regret serves an important evolutionary purpose; it helps us learn from our mistakes and allows us to improve our behavior in the future.
What I do find interesting though is the ability of our memory to rewrite our pasts. In fact, we tend to look back on our lives with nostalgia with many memories distorted and misremembered (sometimes even created wholesale).
Therein lies the problem – focusing on things that have already happened doesn’t help us improve our lives in the future.
It’s much harder to learn from our mistakes when we’re stuck in the past because these memories are mostly based on faulty data.
When it comes to regret, there’s no simple answer, but perhaps part of the solution is something that has worked for me: looking forward.
So, the next time you find yourself thinking about your past, don’t let the feeling linger. Instead, try to imagine your future self and ask yourself “How will I feel in ten years?”
Final words on why people experience regret
You may experience regret for a variety of reasons – both due to the actions that you took and the ones that you didn’t. Sometimes, you may even regret things that were out of your control.
Whatever the reason, regret is a common experience that can be quite difficult to deal with.
One of the hardest things about regret is that it can be so hard to let go of.
Subsequently, people often dwell on their regrets and allow them to consume their thoughts. This can lead to a feeling of being ‘stuck’ in the past and unable to move forward. Decide today that this doesn’t have to be you.
What are you biggest regrets and why? Let me know in the comments below.
“Sure, you wish you did some things differently. But there is no sense in becoming burdened with regret over things you have no power to change.” - Rihanna.
How can I overcome regret?
We’ve all been there. That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize you made a mistake.
Whether it’s something small like forgetting to bring an umbrella, or something more significant like making a poor choice in relationships, regret is a part of life.
But how can we overcome it? Is it even possible? In this blog post, I’ll explore some ways to deal with regret and move on from it. Read more
What are the biggest regrets in life?
It’s the question we all ask ourselves at some point in life: what are our biggest regrets? For some, it might be wishing they’d taken more risks.
For others, it might be not spending enough time with family and friends.
In this blog post, I’d like to explore some of the biggest regrets people have based on research. Read more
Bortolotti L. Does reflection lead to wise choices? Philos Explor. 2011 Sep;14(3):297-313.
Sijtsema, J.J., Zeelenberg, M. & Lindenberg, S.M. Regret, Self-regulatory Abilities, and Well-Being: Their Intricate Relationships. J Happiness Stud (2021).
Towers A, Williams MN, Hill SR, Philipp MC, Flett R. What Makes for the Most Intense Regrets? Comparing the Effects of Several Theoretical Predictors of Regret Intensity. Front Psychol. 2016 Dec 15;7:1941.