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Explanations > Thinking > Regret

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



We all take decisions that we later regret. They may have been hurried or driven by social pressures. They may also have been the best decision we could have made, given the knowledge we had at that time.

Whatever the reason, things did not turn out as well as we had hoped. In fact they may have turned out to be terrible, leading us to bitterly and regularly regret that unwise choice.

We can also regret decisions not made and actions avoided, for example as caused by laziness or cowardice. We can feel bad about not learning more before deciding and the consequent opportunities missed. We can regret things not said as well as what we said, perhaps in anger.


An addicted, coughing smoker regrets taking up the habit as a teenager to fit in with friends and feel grown up.

A person regrets a momentary burst of anger with their boss that got them sacked.


Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that life could only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. We talk about '20-20 hindsight' but even looking back we do not see what was there, only what we remember, reconstruct and guess. We even remember things that are not there, such as in False Memory Syndrome or simple fantasizing.  While much revision of the past is positive, we can also reconstruct a negative past and false regrets, perhaps to justify an unpleasant present.

Regret can rise slowly and it can be a crashing revelation as we realize the disastrous consequences of a decision. It can be highly traumatic, leading to repeating and debilitating recall that distracts and distresses us, preventing a normal, happy life.

Regret can be useful when it teaches us important lessons. It can also lead to apology that repairs damaged relationships.

So what?

A positive purpose of regret is that it can teach us to try and avoid what happened in the past. This may be used in persuasion, where we point to negative past events and use these as justification for different present or future actions. By invoking regret, you can create a tension that helps to motivate people away from such negative events. Beware in this of creating denial. The purpose in persuasion is to motivate change, of doing something different next time, from acting differently to getting insurance.

See also

Regret, False Memory Syndrome, Memory, Anticipated Regret


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