When we consider our regrets, the focus is often on missed opportunities, past decisions, or losses. What concerns us the most in terms of our regrets, say some researchers, is our failure to live up to our “ideal selves” over and above our preoccupation with the mistakes we have made or the things we ought to have done.[i]So in the long run, we regret our inactions more than our actions.[ii]A meta-analysis of regret among Americans concluded that the greater our opportunities, the more we are likely to experience intense regret, and so regret lingers where opportunity existed.[iii]Therefore, where we see the most tangible prospects for change, growth, and renewal, we are more likely to experience regret.[iv]This thesis is exemplified by the six biggest regrets of Americans found in the study,which included (in descending order of frequency) education, career, romance, parenting, self-improvement, and leisure.
Regret is such an interesting and complex emotional process. Given that regret involves both thinking and feeling, it has been conceptualized as a “higher-order cognitive emotion.”[v][vi]Yet all of our emotions, once they enter consciousness, have cognition as a travel companion. Our thoughts help to focus the information provided by what we feel and do so in varying degrees depending on the situation.
So rather than refer to regret as a cognitive emotion, instead I’m inclined to view regret as an “auxiliary emotion” since it always follows the activation of another emotion. Present frustration regarding one’s career, for example, may activate distress that involves memories of paths not taken leading to regret. Or disappointment about a current unfulfilling relationship may evoke memories of regrettable past choices. What we often fail to consider with regret is that a present stimulus—a situation, an event, an image, or a thought of which we may or may not be aware—activates an emotion which, in turn, evokes the memory that then triggers regret. Regret illustrates that cognitions, which involve memories and perceptions among other things, transform feelings into emotional thoughts and that these thoughts can further trigger an emotion.Thus, thoughts are motivated initially by an emotional response, and further emotionscan then be activated by the thoughts themselves.[vii][viii][ix]
Regret is not considered to be one of our core emotions, like fear or anger. Rather, regret is a blend of two or more primary emotions that are activated in close proximity, or results when one or more emotion is triggered in response to another.[x]The dominant emotions in regret are shame and sadness. Since these emotions are repeatedly activated, they can produce a mood. As a result, it may be difficult to rid oneself of the thoughts associated with the feeling of regret. The consequent defensive or coping responses to shame are often present: attacking the self (I was so stupid to party instead of study); attacking others (If that manager had been smart he would have promoted me); avoidance (I’ll have a drink and forget about the one that got away); or withdrawal (I’ll sleep and just forget about it). Indeed, regret is associated with memories of our personal history linked with our imagining what might have created a better outcome if we had done the past differently.
Memories have an indefinite potential to enter our consciousness as they help inform emotions that are activated in our present lives. If you’ve ever tasted something spoiled, you recognize one of the ways in which memories script our emotions to inform our present and future decisions.Scripts are learned procedures that organize information in our brain so we do not have to re-learn the knowledge we gained from prior similar experiences. For the most part, these neat little packages of emotional memories influence our decisions and how we govern our lives. Even so, sometimes what we learn is not entirely correct or we don’t quite learn what we need to know in order to achieve our goals, but instead respond according to old scripts, which may become a reservoir of regret. Nonetheless, when we experience regret, we are motivated to mentally and temporarily alter memories by imagining what might have been had we taken a different path, seized an opportunity, or responded differently.
Despite how negative the shame of regret may feel, it represents internal feedback about our past behavior, much like a self-supervisor. Although looking back may not always influence future behavior, retrospective assessment certainly has the potential to provide a learning experience. We can refer to this self-reflective capacity as resilience or as an ability to positively respond to error. According to cognitive scientists, the orbitofrontal cortex—a region in the frontal lobes in the brain—plays a fundamental role in mediating experiences of regret.[10 ]The cognitive process, known as counterfactual thinking, has to do with our assessment of what was gained as compared to what would have been gained had we made a different decision.Thus, regret may represent an important dimension of our capacity to review our decisions or behavior retrospectively.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, how terrible the shame of regret may feel, it is a teacher that enables us to look within ourselves and can lead us to think deeply about ourselves.13]It is our avoidance of the lessons to be learned that causes us the most trouble. Hopefully, we decide to use a particular moment of regret as an impetus to personal growth.
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Davidai, S. and Gilovich, T. (2018). The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people’s most enduring regrets. Emotion, 18(3):439-452. doi: 10.1037/emo0000326.
Davidai, S. and Gilovich, T. (2018). The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people’s most enduring regrets. Emotion,18(3):439-452. doi: 10.1037/emo0000326.
Roese, N. J. and Summerville, A. (2005), Why we regret most…and why.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(9): 1273–1285.
 Roese, N. J. and Summerville, A. (2005), Why we regret most…and why.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(9): 1273–1285.
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Bjakebring, Par (2015). Regret and regret regulation across the lifespan. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303664617_Regret_and_Regret_Regulation_Across_the_Lifespan
Lerner, J., & Keltner, D. (2000). Beyond valence: Toward a model of emotion specific influences on judgment and choice. Cognition and Emotion, 14, 473–493.
Lazarus, R. (1984). On the primacy of cognition. American Psychologist, 39(2), 124–129.
Zajonc, R. (1984). On the primacy of affect. American Psychologist, 39(2), 117–123.
. Carroll E. Izard, Human Emotions (New York: Plenum, 1977), 93.
. Camille, N. et al.,(2004). The Involvement of the Orbitofrontal Cortex in the Experience of Regret.Science, 304, 1167.doi: 10.1126/science.1094550;
. Marcel Zeelenberg, et al., (1998). Emotional Reactions to the Outcomes of Decisions: The Role of Counterfactual Thought in the Experience of Regret and Disappointment. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 75, 117. doi: 10.1006/obhd.1998.2784.
. Nathanson, D. (1962). Shame and pride: Affect, sex, and the birth of the self. New York, NY: Norton.