Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn howto make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about what we do, start here.
Does the experience of regret serve a purpose? Is it a necessary element of sociality?
One researcher suggests that there are two main forms of regret. The first is a “hot emotion” that carries a blow. For example, it's what you feel when you suffer a loss because you didn't follow instructions or seek guidance. It's the punch to the diaphragm as you think about the things you could have done differently, or that sinking feeling of despair as you're confronted with disappointment. The second is a form of wistful thinking. “If only” fills this category: If only I had taken the time to check where my keys were or if only I had walked away from that argument. Common to both forms is a sense that something could have been done differently. That is the nature of regret: the belief that a negative outcome is the result of one's own actions, and could have been avoided if one had taken an alternative path.
The role of regret in decision-making is twofold. On one hand, it can be limiting. We tend to overgeneralize negative results, and so it may be that one poor choice can prevent you from taking any action that remotely resembles the regrettable course. For example, you may refrain from giving advice if your suggestion doesn't go as planned. Or you may stop purchasing a particular brand if you have problems with one of their products. Or you may avoid a particular topic if others seemed to have responded poorly to those ideas in the past. In this context, regret can easily become consuming. That is, the individual can be so focused on what he did wrong and what he would do differently, that it immobilizes him, rendering him incapable of accepting and resolving the situation. On the other hand, it can make us more attuned to missed opportunities. For example, if you paid more for something because the sale expired as you waited to see if the price would drop further, you may be less inclined to wait going forward. Or if you realize that you should have spoken up to prevent a friend from being hurt, you may decide to speak up sooner if it means saving a friendship.