Monday, June 6, 2011

What do you regret?

When my grandfather was in his 90s, I used to visit him at his assisted living facility.  There were lots of residents sitting around, as well as lots of visitors of all ages.  It reminded me of the research that Tom Gilovich and Victoria Medvec and their colleagues have done on regret. 

Regret is the emotion experienced when someone is sad because of an option that was or was not taken some time in the past.  It is possible to regret an action (I should never have jumped into that cactus.) or an inaction (I regret that I never learned to salsa dance.)

Psychologists have been quite interested in regret.  One reason for this interest is because people often make choices based on their expectations of what they will regret in the future.  Typically, this research demonstrates that people will decide not to take an action, when they think they are likely to regret that action in the future.

What is interesting, though, is that what people regret about their past depends on the time frame being considered and also the person’s age. 

First, the time frame.  When people are thinking about the recent past, or thinking about an upcoming situation, they regret actions they might take and inactions about equally.  That is, people are concerned both about the negative consequences of taking an action, and also the negative consequences of forgoing an action.  When they think about the distant past, however, they almost exclusively regret actions not taken. 

To give an example, if you are in college and are thinking about asking someone out on a date, you may think about both regretting asking if you are turned down as well as regretting not ask.  However, in the distant future, however, you are much more likely to regret not asking someone out than asking them out.  So, in the present, you are likely to over-weight the importance of the regret of the action taken. 

Age is the factor that led me to be reminded of this research while I was visiting my grandfather. In a 1994 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Gilovich and Medvec asked people at a range of different ages to name things that they regret.  The younger individuals in their study (undergraduates) regretted both actions and inactions.  In contrast, the older individuals (retirees) almost exclusively regretted inactions. 

One possible reason for this finding is that college students are still at an age where everything seems to be laid out in front of them.  Failing to take up a musical instrument or painting by age 20 does not preclude you from taking it up some time in the future.  So, the consequences of inaction are not so dire.  Instead, the many silly things you have done (putting a dent in your father’s car while rushing home to watch a football game) loom larger than the things you have not yet done.  By retirement age, however, there are fewer options open.  One may still be able to take up a musical instrument, but running a marathon may no longer be a possibility.  From the perch of advanced age, the dent in the car seems inconsequential. 

Why does this matter?  As I mentioned, the earliest research on regret demonstrated that people tend to avoid actions that they think might cause them regret later.  If the action is one that has severe negative consequences and little upside, then such a choice is probably a good one.  However, people may also overvalue the regret they will experience about an action in the future.  After all, by retirement age, you are unlikely to still be stung by a romantic rejection in college, but you may forever rue the possibility that you walked away from your true love.