An expansive selection of western melancholy hits from Hoobastank’s The Reason to Adele’s Hello, are songs about regret and learning. Closer home, Zindagi ke safar mein, in Kishore Kumar’s classic voice, is an unforgettable. Who hasn’t felt the pang, the churn in their belly, when a decision made by them, in retrospect, turned out to be the wrong one. Regret is a powerful, complex and ubiquitous emotion and a pervasive part of how we experience the world in relation to our self. Psychological research about this emotion is a relatively young field producing some fascinating insights.
Good regret and bad regret
Although regret is a painful emotion that arises from the imagination of what could have been — it is also a hopeful one that forces individuals to learn, in order to avoid mistakes and achieve better outcomes in future. For example, regret about turning down an exciting opportunity for the fear of being overwhelmed by its responsibilities can become the reason to proactively take chances ahead. This is especially true for young people, which goes on to show that all regrets are not equal.
When there is no way to rectify or change an outcome, such as a permanent loss of a loved one, regrets can be hard to overcome. One of the worst manifestations of regret is when it is relentless — forcing people to replay and rehash details of what happened in the past over and over again, which can cause chronic stress and symptoms of anxiety and clinical depression. Amy Summerville, a professor of psychology who runs the Regret Lab at the Miami University of Ohio, United States, refers to this as rumination — a bovine digestion term for chewing cud. “Rumination is having thoughts spring unwanted to mind and we’re chewing them over without actually getting anything new out of them, they’re just repeatedly, intrusively, becoming part of our mental landscape,” she explains on NPR, “What we’ve found is that people who have ruminative regret, tend to be the people who are experiencing the most negative outcomes.”
What hurts more: Inaction or action?
There is a general belief that people tend to regret more things that they did not do (inaction) over things that they did (action). Pop culture and anecdotes frequently warn about leading life wondering and wishing for ‘what might have been’.
Some psychological studies do suggest that in the long run, inactions are regretted more than actions. Many regrettable actions are immediately realised, such as a job interview ruined due to a stupid statement that shouldn’t have been said. But over the long haul inactions seem to be regretted more because, like incomplete goals, they accumulate and linger like unchecked boxes in the mental to-do list. This may simply be due to the fact the number of things that an individual has done (e.g. choosing a career) are finite and dwarfed by the number of possibilities that could have been (all the other interests forsaken).
However, other research has indicated that what is done (action) can be equally regretted in the long run when their outcomes arise from decisions not in keeping with personal values, those that affect social and interpersonal relationships, and those that are hard to justify.
Making sense of unfortunate, bad events
Psychology explains something know as the ‘fundamental attribution error,’ which is the tendency to explain actions and behavior, self or someone else’s, based on things that are intrinsic to the individual and part of their personality versus things that are shaped by the context and the situation in which the actors find themselves. It can lead people to view their personal responsibility in an event to a greater extent than is actually true. Contrary to some motivational rhetoric, circumstances have a significant impact on the ‘free’ decisions made by individuals, which may not be accounted for in the regret experienced. For instance, a bunch of bullies could be operating under the social context of peer pressure when they indulge in demeaning their victim. This doesn’t make their actions any better, but that may not necessarily be a total reflection of who they are as a person. Rather, it could be a much more complicated web of things that were influencing them and who they were at the time.
On the other hand, sudden and unfortunate events can lead affected people to wonder what they could have done to prevent it — to regret doing or not doing something in hindsight. According to Summerville, sometimes it is easier to assume and assign self-causality rather than deal with an unexplainable, unpredictable bad event. For instance, regret and self-blame about not taking more interest in a family member’s troubles, in the event of their suicide, can lead a loved one to assume more responsibility for it than their fair share. They may not realise is that they were just one agent among many others (friends, other family members, doctors) who could have identified signs of what was to come and acted in accordance. “One of the ways in which people can get a sense of control over their circumstances is by having these thoughts about what might have been,” Summerville explains on NPR.
The dark side to wondering about what might have been, she warns, is that it can lead to drawing an incorrect causality. If a woman were to go to a party, consume a spiked drink and later get sexually assaulted on account of the substance added to that drink, she may think later what might have been if she hadn’t accepted that drink. Such a thought might give a semblance of control in making sense of the overwhelming situation but it would also deflect attention from the much more difficult question of who spiked the drink and who were the criminals that assaulted her. So while the thoughts about ‘what might have been’ may help give a structure to our world where bad things happen senselessly and meaninglessly, they may not always be correct or the most useful ways to do so.
Regret is one of the most common negative emotions we feel. Many of us, as we grow older, seem to lead lives rich in what-ifs, sighing about untrodden paths, but find ways of coping with self-disappointments along with sufficient will to keep moving forward. Ruminative regret aside, these thoughts act as a kind of self-focussed compass, encouraging a constant refinement of how we go about navigating our lives and what responsibility we feel towards ourselves and our fellow humans.