When you reminisce about your life, looking through a photo album, or chatting with friends and family, you will probably go through a real mix of emotions, recollecting the good times and the bad. Some more poignant moments might stand out to you – perhaps there were times you reached a crossroads in your life and had to make a big choice?
Each of us faces decisions like that throughout life, and none of us can know what is going to happen in the future so often we end up making, what we later look back on as, bad decisions. Now, a study from the University of Illinois has shown that it is in these very moments – when we feel regret – that we actually reveal some deep secrets about our psyches.
Neale J. Roese and Amy Summerville have come to an incredible discovery through an in-depth study of regret, concluding that our biggest remorse can reveal to us where our greatest potential lies.
Regret as Emotion
Roese and Summerville began by looking at the sensation of regret in general and trying to get an understanding of how those feeling it perceive it. Going into the study, they had expected that everyone would see regret as a negative emotion but were surprised to find that there was a mixture of both positive and negative associations attached to it. In fact, people generally perceived regret in a favorable light.
Roese explained, “Regret is like a flag going up.” Essentially, it helps people to make better decisions in the future in a much more useful way than other negative emotions do. As such, people attribute a lot of worth and value to regret.
However, they still acknowledge that regret feels bad for those experiencing it, “it implies a fault in personal action… hence self-blame is a component of regret.” Conversely, it is this bittersweet mixture of emotion that gives us the motivation to take corrective measures, to make better choices further down the line.
What do People Regret?
It is important to recognize different triggers for regret – firstly understanding whether it is regret for an action taken or regret for an action not taken. In both of these cases, we feel regretful for the decision we ultimately made, however, studies have shown, that regret for inaction tends to last a lot longer and be more intense.
This is because the ‘could haves’ are boundless – we can make up what could have happened had we taken that job, or moved abroad. On the flip side, when regretting a decision we took, we can only imagine the outcome of having not made that choice and as such, it is a much shorter-lived, less intense period of regret.
The researchers looked at previous studies and found that the top six life-regrets of Americans are (in descending order): education, career, romance, parenting, self-improvement, and leisure.
It’s quite likely that these six consistently top the list because they all have a pretty significant meaning and impact in our lives – decisions relating to these are wide-reaching and can result in substantial changes in our lives. Education, for example, impacts our job opportunities, social circles, and ends up sending ripples through the rest of our lives.
However, the question remains, why do we lament some choices and not others? Further, what can the feeling of regret tell us about ourselves?
One of the lead researchers explained why some situations are more likely to produce feelings of regretfulness when we look back over them, “Greater perceived opportunity within life domains evokes more intense regret.” In other words, the bigger the missed opportunity, the bigger the regret. Once this link between regret and perceived opportunity has been made, it’s clearer what kind of insight it can give into an individual.
This feeling of regret is essentially a psychological nudge pointing out potential. Roese and Summerville explain that “Opportunity breeds regret.” and looking back over such regrets is a reflection of where in life people see opportunity – where they see the chance to grow and change as an individual.
If you consider the moments of your life you find yourself returning to in regret time and again, it could help you to understand your true potential. When you feel that pang of regret about a past decision, consider it your brain’s way of working out what you’re capable of, and use that information in the future to propel you to reach new heights.