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Explanations > Emotions > Regret

Regret is... | Regretting action | Regretting inaction | Anticipated regret | So what


Regret is an emotion that has a significant effect on us. It can ruin our lives. It can paralyze us. Yet it can also lead to better decisions.

Regret is...

Regret is a feeling of sadness that is related to something that we have done or something that we have not done.

Regretting action

There are many things we can regret, such as:

  • Saying something hurtful when we were angry.
  • Starting a relationship with a person who turns out to be not as nice as we had hoped.
  • Helping a person who then does not appreciate our efforts.
  • Buying something that turns out to be lower quality or less useful than we had thought.
  • Spending money without considering what we would not be able to buy.

In these, we effectively are regretting a decision that did not lead to the expected outcome. Action involves the expenditure of resource such as time, money and emotion. A part of regret is often a frustration that this expenditure was wasted.

In practice, there is risk and random factors in much of what we do and it is easy for things not to turn out well. When we make the best decision we can with the information we have available, and when things go wrong because of random external factors, regret is pointless. This, however, does not stop us from regretting.

Regretting inaction

As well as regretting doing things, we can also regret what we have not done. The things we regret not doing can be very similar to the things that we regret doing. We can also regret not taking action.

The decision not to do something may seem easier and safer than a decision to take action. The fallacy with this is that when we choose inaction we often do not take into account what we may lose as a result of that choice.

When making a decision, we may face several options where we may choose only one. There is in such cases plenty of opportunity for regret and it can seem that inaction is a far better choice.

When people look back on their lives, they often regret things they have not done more than things they have done. This can be because of the above factors.

Anticipated regret

In making decisions, we predict the outcomes of potential choices, including how we would feel about the outcomes that we imagine. If the projected outcome is unsatisfactory, then we feel the regret now that we would feel in that possible future. This is anticipated regret.

When we have multiple options from which we may choose only one, then it may seem there are many possible regrets. This can lead us to choose nothing as we weigh many regrets against one possible satisfaction.

Anticipated regret can also paralyze us when it leads us to avoiding many risks. When we look back on life, we often find happy memories in areas where we took risks. In this way, anticipated regret is one of the key reasons we regret inaction.

There also is a lot of possible value in anticipated regret as it stops us from doing things which seem unwise. It can keep us sensible and in line with our values when we may be contemplating doing something we know is wrong.

So what?

Avoid regret wherever you can, but do not do this by choosing not to act. Simply know that you make the best choices you can. An attitude that truly says that regret is pointless can help to minimize the regret you feel when things do not go perfectly to plan.

When persuading, you can use anticipated regret to prevent people making a choice. This is typically used by salespeople to sow doubt about a competing product.

When you are offering multiple options, constrain these so the other person has few clear choices. Three options is often the best to offer.

See also

Decisions, Risk Bias, Ellis' Irrational Beliefs, Anticipated Regret


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