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The Temporal Pattern to the Experience of Regret

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Abstract

Through telephone surveys, written questionnaires, and face-to-face interviews, it was found that people's biggest regrets tend to involve things they have failed to do in their lives. This conflicts with research on counterfactual thinking that indicates that people regret unfortunate outcomes that stem from actions taken more than identical outcomes that result from actions foregone. These divergent findings were reconciled by demonstrating that people's regrets follow a systematic time course: Actions cause more pain in the short-term, but inactions are regretted more in the long run. Support for this contention was obtained in 2 scenario experiments that assessed people's beliefs about the short- and long-term regrets of others and in an experiments that asked Ss about their own regrets of action and inaction from 2 time periods. Several mechanisms that can account for this temporal pattern are discussed.
ATTITUDES AND SOCIAL COGNITION
The Temporal Pattern to the Experience of Regret
Thomas Gilovich and Victoria Husted Medvec
Through telephone surveys, written questionnaires, and face-to-face interviews, it was found that
people's biggest regrets tend to involve things they have failed to do in their lives. This conflicts with
research on counterfactual thinking that indicates that people regret unfortunate outcomes that
stem from actions taken more than identical outcomes that result from actions foregone. These
divergent findings were reconciled by demonstrating that people's regrets follow a systematic time
course: Actions cause more pain in the short-term, but inactions are regretted more in the long run.
Support for this contention was obtained in 2 scenario experiments that assessed people's beliefs
about the short- and long-term regrets of others and in an experiment that asked Ss about their own
regrets of action and inaction from 2 time periods. Several mechanisms that can account for this
temporal pattern are discussed.
Regrets are like taxes: Nearly everyone must suffer them. In
today's world in which people arguably exercise more choice
than ever before in human history, it is exceedingly difficult to
choose so consistently well that regret is avoided entirely. How-
then can people keep their regrets to a minimum? What courses
of action or inaction should be avoided in order to ward off the
experience of regret? In other words, what is it that people tend
to regret most in their lives?
Until recently (Houston, Sherman, & Baker, 1991; Kahne-
man & Tversky, 1982b; Kinnier & Metha, 1989; Landman,
1993;
Metha, Kinnier, & McWhirter, 1989) little was known
about the determinants of regret. Most research on the subject
dealt not with the questions of when and why regret is experi-
enced, but with how the anticipation of future regret affects cur-
rent choices (Bell, 1981; Loomes & Sugden, 1982). Recently,
however, research on the subject of counterfactual thinking
(Kahneman & Tversky, 1982b; Miller, Turnbull, & McFarland,
1990) has shed some light on the issue of what people regret
most in their lives and why. Numerous studies seem to show
that people experience more regret over negative outcomes that
stem from actions taken than from identical outcomes that re-
sult from actions foregone (Gleicher et al., 1990; Kahneman &
Tversky, 1982a; Landman, 1987). Perhaps the clearest illustra-
tion of this tendency comes from an oft-cited scenario experi-
ment by Kahneman and Tversky (1982a):
Thomas Gilovich and Victoria Husted Medvec, Department of Psy-
chology, Cornell University.
This research was supported by Research Grant MH45531 from the
National Institute of Mental Health to Thomas Gilovich. We thank Kir-
sten Blau, Dorie Katzer, Jennifer Lowe, Marshall Schacht, Sarah Sirlin,
and Robii,1 Winitsky for serving as coders and experimenters and Den-
nis Regan for commenting on a draft of the article.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Thomas G'-ilovich, Department of Psychology, Cornell University, Uris
Hall, Ithac a. New York 14853-7601.
Mr. Paul owns shares in company A. During the past year he con-
sidered switching to stock in company B, but he decided against it.
He now finds out that he would have been better ofl'by $ 1,200 if he
had switched to the stock of company B. Mr. George owned shares
in company B. During the past year he switched to stock in com-
pany A. He now finds that he would have been better offby $ 1,200
if he had kept his stock in company B.
Who feels greater regret? (p. 173)
A rather stunning 92% of the respondents thought that Mr.
George, whose misfortune stems from an action taken, would
experience more regret. The intuitions revealed in this and
other studies (Gleicher et al., 1990; Landman, 1987; see also
Spranca, Minsk, & Baron, 1991) are extremely powerful and
reliable. Because "it is usually easier to imagine oneself abstain-
ing from actions that one has carried out than carrying out ac-
tions that were not in fact performed" (Kahneman & Miller,
1986,
p. 145), the person who takes an action seems more likely
to be tortured by thoughts of what might have been than the
person who failed to act. Taking an action that leads to an un-
fortunate event is more likely to produce a sense that "I brought
this on
myself"
or "this need not have happened."
However, as powerful and intuitively appealing as these re-
sults are, they conflict—at least on the surface—with an obser-
vation from everyday life. When people are asked to describe
their biggest regrets in life, it seems that they most often cite
things they failed to do. "I wish I had been more serious in col-
lege."
"I regret that
1
never pursued my interest in dance." "I
should have spent more time with my children." As troubling
as regrettable actions might be initially, when people look back
on their lives it seems to be their regrettable failures to act that
stand out and cause the most
grief.
This apparent conflict between the findings of laboratory re-
search and the lessons of everyday life could stem from either of
two sources. First, either element of this conflict may simply be
incorrect and misleading. Scenario experiments like the one
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1994. Vol. 67. No. 3, 357-365
Copyright 1994 by the American Psychological Association. Inc. 0022-3514/94/$3.(K)
357
358THOMAS GILOVICH AND VICTORIA HUSTED MEDVEC
just cited only examine people's intuitions about regret, not the
experience of regret
itself.
Perhaps if the actual emotional expe-
rience of regret were examined, people would manifest more
regret over things undone. Alternatively, the claim that people's
greatest regrets involve things they have failed to do in their lives
is only that—a claim that has not been adequately tested.
The other explanation of these divergent findings is more in-
triguing: There may be a systematic time course to the experi-
ence of regret over actions and inactions. As the literature on
counterfactual thinking suggests, people may be more upset by
their unfortunate actions in the short run. Initially, regrettable
actions may prompt more counterfactual thoughts about what
"might have" or "should have" been and therefore generate
more regret. Over time, however, it may be those things that a
person has failed to do that stand out and cause the most
grief.
Regrettable failures to act, in other words, may have a longer
half life than regrettable actions. The research we report here
was designed to investigate this intriguing possibility. First, we
report the results of two studies that examined what it is that
people tend to regret most in their
lives.
Then we describe three
studies that investigated whether there is a consistent time
course to the experience of regret. We end with a discussion
of the psychological mechanisms that could give rise to such a
temporal pattern.
Study 1: Regret Surveys
Perhaps the best way to determine what people regret most is
simply to ask them.1 Accordingly, we selected a random sample
of 60 adults (Mean age = 40.3 years) from the Syracuse, New
York, telephone directory and asked them the following
question:
When you look back on your experiences in life and think of those
things that you regret, what would you say you regret more, those
things that you did but wish you hadn't, or those things that you
didn't do but wish you had?
The question was counterbalanced in terms of which type of
regret, that of action or inaction, was listed first. Overall, 45 of
the 60 respondents (75%) indicated that they experienced more
regret over those things they did not do but wished they had
done (binomial z = 3.75, p < .001). The order in which the two
alternatives were listed made no difference, nor did the sex of
the respondent.
There is a viable alternative interpretation of these data, how-
ever. People might actually feel more pain over their regrettable
actions, but there may be fewer of them than regrettable failures
to act. Thus, when summed over a larger number of regrettable
inactions, people may report greater regret for their failures to
act, even though individually they are not as potent.
To examine this alternative interpretation, we conducted an-
other telephone survey, this time of 30 adults in the Chicago
metropolitan area (Mean age = 40.1). We asked them to think
of their greatest regret of action and their greatest regret of in-
action. We told them not to tell us the content of each regret,
but to be sure to have a specific instance of each type in mind.
Once they indicated that they had retrieved an example of each
type,
we asked them which they regretted more. Twenty-one
of the 30 respondents (70%) expressed greater regret over their
biggest failure to act (binomial z = 2.01, p < .05). As before,
neither the sex of the respondent nor the order in which regrets
of action and inaction were mentioned had any effect on the
results.
Thus,
contrary to what one might conclude from the litera-
ture on counterfactual thinking, people's biggest regrets are not
dominated by actions they wish they could take back (Gleicher
et al., 1990; Kahneman & Miller, 1986; Kahneman & Tversky,
1982a; Landman, 1987). When directly asked, people report
that they most regret something they failed to do.
Study 2: Regret Interviews
Does this same tendency reveal itself when people's regrets
are elicited through a different methodology? To examine this
question, we asked several groups of adults to describe the big-
gest regrets of their lives. No mention was made of the action-
inaction distinction. Instead, we had raters score each regret on
this dimension afterward. Because we were interested in obtain-
ing the regrets of a wide range of people, we interviewed four
groups of subjects. Three of the groups were interviewed face-
to-face. One was a sample of 10 professors emeriti at Cornell
University. A second was a group of
11
residents of various nurs-
ing homes in upstate New York. A third group consisted of 40
Cornell undergraduate students. The responses of subjects in
each of these three groups were tape-recorded and later tran-
scribed. Finally, a group of 16 adult clerical and custodial staff
members at Cornell were given questionnaires that they re-
turned anonymously through the campus mail.2
All respondents were asked (either in person or by question-
naire),
"When you look back on your life to this point, what are
your biggest regrets?" Those interviewed in person were asked
after each response, "Is there anything else you regret?" Those
filling out written questionnaires found space marked off for as
many as five regrets.
Overall, the 77 subjects described 213 regrets. Each of these
regrets was scored by two judges who were unaware of our hy-
pothesis. The judges determined whether each regret stemmed
from an action taken, an action foregone, or some circumstance
beyond the person's control (e.g., "having polio as a
child").
The
judges agreed with one another on 204 of the 213 regrets. The
1 Landman (1993) defined regret as "a more or less painful cognitive
and emotional state of feeling sorry for misfortunes, limitations, losses,
transgressions, shortcomings, or mistakes" (p. 36). This seems to us to
be a suitably inclusive and appropriate definition, both in general and
with respect to the research reported here. We never provide our sub-
jects with a definition of regret; instead we allow them to arrive at their
own definition and respond accordingly. Surely, then, the experiences cfi
regret that subjects call up are sometimes tinged with elements of re-
lated emotional states such as remorse and disappointment.
2 We used the two response modes of face-to-face interviews and
anonymous questionnaires to determine whether they we>;e differen-
tially effective in eliciting "deeper," more personal regrets. They were
not. Those responding in person were remarkably willing to open up to
our interviewers, and those who filled out our questionnaire wtrote about
equally troublesome aspects of their
lives.
Furthermore, we d'etected no
difference between the two response modes on any of the dependent
measures reported below.
REGRET359
scoring of the remaining
9 was
resolved by having
a
third judge,
also unaware of the hypothesis, cast a decisive vote.
We thought initially that the regrets might be difficult to
score. After all, every action implies a corresponding inaction,
and vice
versa.
When people
say,
"I regret that I joined the Navy
when
I
was
18,"
we
might wonder whether
they
regret the action
itself or whether they regret not doing all the things that joining
the Navy prevented them from doing.
We
decided to code each
regret according to what the subjects themselves emphasized
(in this case the Navy, not the lost opportunities caused by join-
ing the Navy), and, by doing so, the scoring was not at all diffi-
cult, as the very high interrater reliability attests. Follow-up
questions addressed to a subset of our subjects indicated that
whatever the subjects chose to emphasize in their initial state-
ment was indeed the true source of their regret.
Interestingly, only 10 of the 213 regrets involved events con-
sidered beyond the person's control. It thus seems that a sense
of personal responsibility is central to the experience of regret.
People might bemoan or curse their bad fate, but they rarely
regret
it in the sense that the term is typically understood. As
for the events people do regret, the results were as predicted:
Regrettable failures to act outnumbered regrettable actions by
nearly a 2 to
1
margin (63% vs. 37%; binomial z = 3.65, p <
.001).3
Beyond this anticipated preponderance of regrettable failures
to act, there are a number of additional
issues
worth addressing.
First, men and women did not differ in the tendency to report
actions or inactions as their biggest regrets. Second, there was
some evidence that older individuals were more likely than
younger subjects to mention things they failed to do, but the
trend did not reach statistical significance. For
instance,
74%
of
the regrets listed by our two oldest samples, the professors
emeriti and nursing home residents, involved things they did
not do, as compared with
61 %
for our two youngest samples,
the students and staff members (z = 1.40, p
= .
16).4
The third issue concerns the precise content of subjects' re-
grets beyond the action-inaction dichotomy. What exactly do
people list as the biggest regrets of their lives? To address this
question, all sets of data were reviewed, and common themes
discerned. Three distinct categories of regrettable actions and
six distinct categories of regrettable failures to act were men-
tioned with some frequency. As a result, we created a coding
scheme consisting of each of these categories and their comple-
ments from the opposite side of the action-inaction dichotomy.
In other
words,
because there were many examples of the inac-
tion category, "not pursuing an interest in x," it
was
included in
the coding scheme along with its contrast category, "wasted
time on x". The coding scheme appears in Table 1.
Two judges
who were
unaware of our action-inaction hypoth-
esis assigned each regret to
1
of the
17
categories listed in Table
1 (8 actions, 8 inactions, and
1
outside of person's control). Be-
cause there were so many categories, the level of agreement be-
tween raters was bound to be less than that obtained for the
simple judgment of action or inaction. Nevertheless, the two
raters made exactly the same category assignments for 137 of
the 213 regrets. A third
judge,
also unaware of our hypothesis,
then reviewed each of the remaining 76 regrets. Her judgments
agreed with one of the initial judges on 62 of
the
regrets, thus
determining the category to which they were assigned. Finally,
for the 14 regrets that each of the three judges assigned to a
different category, Thomas Gilovich determined which one
seemed most appropriate.
An examination of
Table 1
indicates that the most common
regrets involved missed educational opportunities and a failure
to "seize the moment." Missed opportunities for romance, not
devoting enough time to personal relationships, and "rushing
in
too soon," were also frequently mentioned. Another interesting
aspect of
Table 1
is that no one regretted spending time devel-
oping a skill or
hobby,
even when the skill was no longer used or
the hobby no longer pursued. No one reported any misgivings
about a youth spent learning how to golf or collecting stamps,
even when they had
since given up
golf and the stamp collection
was no longer of
interest.
Compare this with the 11 entries in
the corresponding category "not pursuing
an
interest
in x."
This
comparison captures our main finding with particular clarity:
When people look back on their lives it is the things they have
not
done that generate the greatest regret.
Our findings with respect to the specific content of people's
regrets closely match those obtained by previous investigators.
For instance, the most common regret mentioned by subjects
surveyed by Kinnier and Metha
(1989;
Metha et al., 1989) was
that they did not take their education more seriously and work
harder
at
it—the most common regret listed by our respondents
as well (see also Cantril, 1965, for a similar
finding).
Their sub-
jects,
like ours, also expressed concern about the lack of time
spent with family and about their reluctance to take risks
("seize
the moment"). There are important methodological
differences, however, between our work and that of Kinnier and
Metha. Most important, they never asked their subjects about
their regrets per
se;
instead, they asked "If you had your life to
live over again, what might you do differently?" (p. 184). Al-
though this question may elicit some genuine regrets, it need
not. It is entirely possible to look backward and seize upon
3 Because most respondents described more than one regret, the data
are not all independent and thus the simple binomial test with individ-
ual regrets as the unit of analysis is not strictly appropriate. To adjust
for
this,
we also performed a test that compared the number of respon-
dents who
listed a majority of inactions versus the number
who
listed a
majority of
actions.
This analysis also revealed a reliable tendency for
inaction to loom larger
in
people's
regrets
(binomial z =
3.23,
p
<
.002).
4 One reason
we may
not
have
observed a statistically significant effect
of age
is
that our set of respondents did not represent the entire lifespan.
No one under college age was included. Our results may have been
different had we included adolescents and children because it is likely
that at that age people are less likely to regret the things they have not
done. Because the future seems limitless to the young, things undone
are likely to be assigned to a less troublesome category of things "yet to
be
done."
Also, it is part of the "job" of being a child to act in
ways
that
lead
to
trouble
in
order
to
determine
the
limits of
the social
and physical
world. Negative outcomes that stem from their actions are therefore
likely to be highly available. In support of these suppositions, we asked
a group of junior high school and high school students the same forced-
choice question
we
asked our telephone survey respondents (described
above).
Unlike our adult subjects, a majority of whom expressed greater
regret over their failures to art, the adolescent respondents
were
equally
divided between those who felt worse about their actions and those who
felt
worse
about their failures to act.
360THOMAS GILOVICH AND VICTORIA HUSTED MEDVEC
Table 1
Most
Common Regrets
n
21
21
15
13
11
7
2
38
Failures to act
Regret
Missed educational opportunities
Failure to seize the moment
Not spending enough time with friends and
relatives
Missed romantic opportunity
Not pursuing interest in X
Missed career opportunity; insufficient effort
Not making
financial
transaction
Miscellaneous inaction
n
3
17
4
10
0
3
6
32
Actions
Regret
Bad educational choice
Rushed in too soon
Spent time badly
Unwise romantic adventure
Wasted time on X
Bad career decision; wasted effort
Unwise
financial
action
Miscellaneous action
Note. An additional 10 regrets dealt with events outside the person's control and thus lie outside the
action-inaction dichotomy.
something that could have been done differently without expe-
riencing any feeling of true regret. One might look back and
think that the best thing one could have done differently was to
have invested in Apple Computer stock in the late 1970s, but
one can have this feeling without engaging in any of the
self-
recrimination characteristic of regret. Kinnier and Metha's
study also differed from ours in that their subjects were not free
to describe any regrets they might have; they could only check
those regrets contained in a list provided by the investigators.
As far as we can tell, then, our study is the only one in which
subjects were asked to describe their actual, most pressing re-
grets in their own words.
Nevertheless, our main concern was not with the specific
content of subjects' regrets, but with how they aligned with the
action-inaction dichotomy. In this respect, the results could
hardly have been more clear: The subjects described nearly
twice as many regrets of inaction as regrets of action. This find-
ing thus brings us back to the conflicting pattern of data with
which we began. Scenario experiments like the stock market
example of Kahneman and Tversky (1982a) indicate that com-
mission looms larger than omission in the experience of regret.
In contrast, our results indicate that from a more distant retro-
spective vantage point people are more troubled by their omis-
sions.
Of
course,
there are important differences in the types of
data on which these contradictory
findings
are
based,
and it
may
be these
differences that are responsible for
the
divergent
results.
These discrepant findings may represent mere methodological
artifact rather than any "real" underlying conflict. Alterna-
tively, this pattern of results may reflect something important
about the experience of regret. Perhaps actions do generate
more regret than inactions in the short-term, but over time the
pain of regrettable actions
diminishes,
whereas that of regretta-
ble failures to act grows. It may be, in other words, that the
divergent results observed in these very different
types
of studies
are
a
reflection of
a
temporal pattern to the experience of regret.
The following three experiments were designed to test whether
this
is
so.
Studies 3 and 4: Intuitions About Short-Term and
Long-Term Regrets
To determine whether the intensity of regret over action and
inaction varies systematically with temporal perspective, two
scenario experiments were conducted. In the first, 80 Cornell
undergraduates read the following story:
Dave and Jim do not know each other, but both are enrolled at the
same elite East Coast University. Both are only moderately satisfied
where they are and both are considering transferring to another
prestigious
school.
Each agonizes over
the
decision,
going
back and
forth between thinking
he
is going to
stay
and thinking
he will
leave.
They ultimately make different decisions: Dave opts to stay where
he
is
and Jim decides to transfer.
Suppose their decisions turn out badly for both of
them:
Dave
still doesn't like it where he is and wishes he had transferred, and
Jim doesn't like his new environment and wishes
he
had stayed.
Each subject was then asked two questions: (a) Who do you
think would regret his decision more on learning that it was a
mistake? (b) Who do you think would regret his decision more
in the long run?
As
in previous scenario experiments of this type (Kahneman
& Tversky, 1982a; Landman, 1987), a vast majority of the sub-
jects (76%) thought that Jim, the person who regrets doing
something, would experience more regret initially (Binomial z
= 4.59, p < .0001). Commission generates more regret, at least
in the short-term. When asked about
the long
run, however, sub-
jects'
intuitions
were
reversed.
A
sizable majority
(64%)
thought
that Dave, who regretted not doing something, would experi-
ence more regret down the road (Binomial z =
2.35,
p
<
.02).
Because each subject answered both questions, there is the
concern that subjects may have felt some implicit demand to
give different answers to the two questions, and this may have
contributed substantially to the observed results. To test this
possibility, we replicated the experiment (once again with Cor-
nell undergraduates
as
subjects)
using a
between-subjects design
in which one group of subjects answered only the question
about short-term regret and another answered only the question
about the long-term. The results were virtually identical to
those obtained in the within-subjects version, thus ruling out
the artifactual interpretation of the results. Seventy-six percent
of
the
34 subjects who were asked whether Dave or Jim would
experience more regret in the short-term indicated that they
thought Jim, who transferred schools, would regret his decision
more. In contrast,
62%
of the 42 subjects
who
were asked about
the long run thought that Dave, who chose not to switch
REGRET361
schools, would experience more regret. The difference between
the responses of the two groups is highly significant, x2(0 =
The intuitions revealed in these two scenario studies provide
support for the temporal profile we have proposed. People an-
ticipate feeling greater regret in the immediate aftermath of a
regrettable action than a regrettable failure to act. At the same
time,
people seem able to get in touch with how readily things
can turn around in the long run. With some distance, it is often
a person's failures to act that cause more distress.
Study 5: Recent and Life-Long Regrets
The previous studies suffer from the same defect as all such
scenario experiments: They examine people's intuitions about
emotional states, not the emotional states
themselves.
To
deter-
mine whether the same temporal pattern would emerge when
people are asked about their own real-life
regrets,
an additional
study was conducted. Thirty-two adult subjects were recruited
from various public places in Ithaca, New York (e.g., bus stops
and laundry rooms), and asked to
fill
out a brief questionnaire.
In counterbalanced order, the questionnaire asked subjects to
recall (but not write down) their single most regrettable action
and inaction from both the past
week
and from their
entire
lives.
Then, for each time period, the subjects were asked to indicate
which they regretted more, the action or the inaction.
Consistent with all of the data presented thus far, subjects'
responses depended on the time period under consideration.
When focused on the past
week,
subjects
were
rather
evenly
split
between those who most regretted their actions
(53%)
and those
who most regretted their failures to
act.
Looking back over their
lives to that point, however, a substantial majority of the sub-
jects (84%) reported greater regret for what they failed to do.
This difference in the pattern of responses across the two time
periods was statistically significant (z = 2.94, p < .01).5 Thus,
people's regrettable actions are more troublesome in the short-
term than in the long run; but for their inactions, the opposite
pattern holds true.
General Discussion
We obtained consistent evidence from our first two studies
that people tend to experience more regret for things they have
not done in their lives than for things they have done. These
results stand in marked contrast to the
findings
reported in the
literature on counterfactual thinking that reveal a pronounced
tendency for commissions to generate more regret than omis-
sions (Gleicher et ah, 1990; Kahneman & Tversky, 1982a;
Landman, 1987). We propose that the discrepancy between
these two sets of data is due to a consistent temporal pattern to
the experience of
regret:
Actions produce greater regret in the
short-term, whereas inactions generate more regret in the long
run. Three additional studies strongly supported the existence
of such a reversal with the passage of
time.
Of course, the extent to which a given claim
is
to be believed
should depend not only on the empirical data mustered to sup-
port it but also on whether the putative effect makes theoretical
sense.
This
is
why,
for
example,
few psychologists believe in ESP
despite the existence of empirical results that, on the surface,
might appear to support it (Bern & Honorton, 1994). Unless a
truly compelling mechanism for such effects
is
proposed, many
people will remain skeptical about the existence of "psi" re-
gardless of the evidence reported—and they are perfectly justi-
fied in doing so.
What about the present case? Are there compelling theoreti-
cal reasons to expect a temporal pattern to the experience of
regret?
We
believe there
are.
Indeed,
we
believe that the tempo-
ral pattern to the experience of regret, like many complex social
psychological phenomena, is an overdetermined result that
stems from the joint operation of
several
distinct mechanisms.
In particular, we propose that there are three classes of mecha-
nisms at work. First, there are mechanisms that, over time, di-
minish the regret due to unfortunate
actions.
Second, there are
mechanisms that enhance the regret over unfortunate failures
to act. Finally, there are mechanisms that differentially affect
the cognitive availability (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973) of re-
grettable actions and
inactions.
These latter mechanisms
do
not
affect the
intensity
of regret over actions and inactions, but they
do
affect
how often
one
is
reminded of such
regrets
and therefore
how often they are experienced. We discuss each set of mecha-
nisms in turn.
Factors That Diminish the Regret of Action
Asymmetries in ameliorative
behavior.
When bad things
happen, people typically try to overcome, undo, or compensate
for the negative outcome. If an individual marries the wrong
person, he or she gets divorced; if
someone
takes a job with the
wrong company, he or she switches organizations or even ca-
reers.
When people's actions
get
them "off course" in some
way,
they endeavor to set themselves right.
What
we
suggest
is
that there is an asymmetry in how readily
and effectively people engage in such ameliorative behavior for
their actions and inactions. We believe that people are more
likely to take remedial steps to alleviate the pain of their regret-
table actions than their regrettable inactions. Why might this
be?
The answer is easiest to see when one thinks of behavior in
Lewinian terms (Lewin, 1938, 1951).6 From a Lewinian per-
spective, whenever people act, they overcome whatever inertia
had kept them in the position they
were
in beforehand, and they
5
Because
each subject responded
twice,
the data are not independent
and the most direct statistical test, the chi-square, is inappropriate. To
overcome this problem,
we
conducted an analysis using only those sub-
jects
who gave
different responses for
the two
time
periods.
Our hypoth-
esis,
after
all,
is
one that involves change from the 1 -week to the lifetime
perspective, and such a hypothesis is tested most directly by the data
from those subjects who exhibited variability in their responses across
the two time
periods.
Ninety-three percent of these subjects conformed
to the predicted pattern of regretting the past week's action more than
the past week's inaction, but regretting their lifetime's most regrettable
inaction more than their lifetime's most regrettable action. Only 7%
exhibited the opposite pattern, and it is this imbalance that yielded the
binomial p of .01 reported above.
6 Our argument does not require that one accept all of Lewin's field
theory. All that is necessary
is
to entertain Lewin's central metaphor of
the psychological tension system in which behavior
is the
product of the
numerous psychological forces acting
on
the individual.
362THOMAS GILOVICH AND VICTORIA HUSTED MEDVEC
upset the balance of forces that existed previously.
By
acting,
in
other
words,
people change their world (and the tension system
in which they are embedded) and enter a new world in which
the forces acting on them are less likely to be in equilibrium.
With the operative forces in flux, it is less difficult to behave in
ways designed to overcome whatever initial mistakes were
made. It is relatively easy to follow initial action with further
action.
In contrast, when people fail to act they are still held in the
grip of preexisting inertial forces. By not acting, in other words,
individuals remain in their old world where the forces acting on
them are likely to be in equilibrium. As a result, it is relatively
difficult to change from initial inaction to subsequent action.
Like many other things in life, behavior is subject to
momentum.
We recently obtained evidence that people are indeed more
likely to take ameliorative steps to deal with their regrettable
actions than their regrettable inactions (Gilovich & Medvec,
1994).
Subjects were asked to think of their biggest regret of
action and their biggest regret of inaction from their entire lives
and to indicate for which regret they engaged in more vigorous
ameliorative behavior. As expected, a substantial majority
(65%) indicated that they had made more significant changes to
deal with their most regrettable action than their most regretta-
ble inaction.
Differential
dissonance
reduction.
Of
course,
there are other
ways
to deal with negative events beyond taking decisive action
to undo the harm. Indeed, there are times when effective action
is not possible and people must engage in "psychological work"
to lessen the pain of the unfortunate event. What cannot be
accomplished materially, in other
words,
can be dealt with psy-
chologically. Moreover, because people's regrets typically in-
volve only those negative outcomes for which they feel partly
responsible, the effort to come to grips with their disap-
pointment often takes the form of attempts to reduce disso-
nance for the event in question (Aronson, 1969; Cooper &
Fazio, 1984; Festinger, 1957; Wicklund & Brehm, 1976). Sig-
nificantly,
we have
shown elsewhere that people are indeed more
inclined to reduce dissonance for negative
events
that stem from
actions taken than for those that stem from actions foregone
(Gilovich, Medvec,
&
Chen, in press).
The net result of these dual tendencies to engage in more vig-
orous dissonance reduction for regrettable actions than regret-
table inactions, and to follow up mistakes of commission with
more effective ameliorative action,
is
that the sting of a regretta-
ble action will diminish sharply with time. As the counterfac-
tual thinking literature suggests, negative outcomes brought on
by commission typically generate more immediate regret than
negative outcomes that stem from omission. However, precisely
because
people's unfortunate actions generate more initial re-
gret, they may call forth more repair work—of both the mate-
rial and psychological sort—and thus lose much of their emo-
tional punch. People may therefore regret their actions more
initially but end up regretting their failures to act more in the
long run.
Factors That Enhance the Regret of Inaction
Confidence
and
temporal
perspective.
Many of our failures
to act stem from an inability to conquer our fears or overcome
our doubts when the moment of truth is at hand. We fail to
make a career change because we are unsure of what the out-
come will be.
We
do not ask someone for a date because
we
are
afraid of rejection. Nevertheless, these concerns—which seem
so pressing when the time to act
is
at hand—may tend to dimin-
ish with the passage of
time.
The further removed we are from
the occasion, the more convinced
we may
become that
we
could
have or would have done just fine. It may be easy to
be
confident
when the task
is
not imminent; it may be harder
to be so
assured
when the challenge is at hand.
Such a tendency for confidence to soar with increasing dis-
tance from an event would obviously serve to magnify a per-
son's feeling of regret over a failure to act. If the fears that kept
an individual from performing some action tend to diminish
with
time,
the reasons
she
or
he
had for not
acting will
no longer
seem compelling. And, with no compelling reason for failing to
do something one wishes one had
done,
the regret over failing to
act is intensified. One becomes cursed by such questions as
"Why didn't I at least try?" and by thoughts that "I'm just too
timid" or "I'm too indecisive."
We have recently shown that people are indeed more confi-
dent that they would have done well at a task long after the time
to perform has passed than either just before or just after the
critical moment (Gilovich, Kerr, & Medvec, 1993). In particu-
lar, we asked Cornell students and alumni to consider the im-
pact of adding a challenging course to their workload during a
typical semester. How much would it affect their grade point
average for the semester? The amount of
sleep
they got? Their
extracurricular and social lives? One group of respondents con-
sisted of Cornell alumni who had been out of college for an
average of 3.5 years. Another was a group of current students
who were asked how much the extra class would affect their
current semester. Finally, a third group of students indicated
how much it would have affected them the previous semester.
As
anticipated, subjects' confidence that they could cope with
an increased work load was directly related to their distance
from the time the extra burden was to be faced. The alumni
indicated that the extra work would take less of
a
toll on their
academic and social lives than did either group of current stu-
dents.
Furthermore, subjects who were asked to make assess-
ments for a recently
completed
semester expressed less concern
about disruption than did subjects making assessments for the
current semester. The farther one is from some challenge, the
less threatening it appears. Thus, from the vantage point of
hindsight, one might not only wish one had gone ahead and
acted, but may frequently fail to understand why one never
acted in the first place. People's regrets intensify because the
failure to act (now) seems so inexplicable.
Asymmetrical impact of
compelling
and
restraining
forces.
The increase in confidence with temporal perspective consti-
tutes one way in which the elements that originally restrained
a person's actions can lose their force over time and therefore
intensify regrets of inaction. There
is
reason to
believe,
however,
that this
may be
but one aspect of a more general pattern: Forces
that restrain human action may be inherently less salient than
forces that compel action. As a result, it may be easy to get in
touch with why one acted (thereby justifying regrettable ac-
tions) but more difficult to understand why one failed to act
(thereby rendering regrettable failures to act rather mystifying).
REGRET363
The results of several experiments support this thesis. Read
(1985;
described in Kahneman & Miller, 1986) taught subjects
a simple card game and then showed them various hands of
two hypothetical players. The subjects were asked to reverse the
apparent outcome by changing the hand of one of the players.
The subjects typically chose to change the outcome by strength-
ening the losing hand rather than weakening the winning hand.
In other words, they apparently found it more natural to add
elements that would compel a victory than to delete elements
that prevented it. Similarly, when subjects are told about the
outcome of various contests (e.g., a hockey game or a
tug-of-
war) they are more inclined to attribute the outcome to the
strength of the winning side than to the weakness of the loser
(Hansen & Hall, 1985). That which causes a victory looms
larger than that which fails to prevent it. Finally, in Dunning
and Parpal's (1989) work on "mental addition" and "mental
subtraction," subjects in the mental addition conditions of their
experiments were asked questions such as, "How many more
questions will you get right if you study for an upcoming
exam?"
Those in the mental subtraction conditions were asked
questions such
as,
"How many fewer questions
will
you get right
if you do not study for an upcoming
exam?"
Subjects' responses
indicated that they thought that adding
a
bit more studying time
would help their performance more than subtracting an equal
amount of studying time would hurt it. That which compels
(e.g.,
studying) has a greater impact than that which restrains or
impedes
(e.g.,
not studying).
These various findings suggest that people may have a rela-
tively easy time getting in touch with why they did something
that in retrospect they would prefer not to have done. Knowing
these reasons, furthermore, should lessen the self-recrimination
and remorse that tend to accompany such negative outcomes.
In contrast, these findings also suggest that people may have
difficulty understanding why they failed to do something they
now wish they had done. And, without a satisfying explanation
for their inaction, self-recrimination and remorse intensify.
This asymmetry in the accessibility of reasons for action and
inaction, furthermore, may become more pronounced with the
passage of time. In the short-term, one can rely on relatively
accurate "bottom-up" processes that recruit specific memories
of the thought processes that led to action or inaction. Over
time,
however, one must rely on less reliable "top-down" pro-
cesses that generate inferences about the reasons one must have
had for one's actions or
inactions.
It
is
when these more abstract
inferential processes are engaged that the differential impact of
compelling and restraining forces are likely to be most
pronounced.
Asymmetries in
perceived
consequences.
There are system-
atic differences in the feedback people receive from acting and
not acting, and these differences tend to make regrettable omis-
sions loom larger than regrettable commissions. What troubles
people about a regrettable action is the set of bad things that
actually happened as a consequence of what they did. Thus, the
regrettable consequences of actions are often finite: They are
bounded by what actually happened. In contrast, what troubles
people about a regrettable inaction
is
the set of good things that
would have happened had they not failed to act. The conse-
quences of inactions are not only generally unknown, they are
also potentially infinite: They are bounded only by the
imagination.
More important, this difference in the perceived conse-
quences of regrettable actions and inactions is likely to become
more pronounced over time. After all, one can always add ele-
ments to the list of good things that would have happened if one
had acted. Regrets of inaction are something of an open book.
As the list of
negative
consequences
grows,
so
too
does
the regret
over one's failure to act. People tend to idealize many aspects of
the past, and lost opportunities are no exception. In contrast,
the "book" on regrets of action
is
typically closed. The negative
consequences therefore do not accumulate, and the amount of
regret levels off or even diminishes.
There
is
a second way in which the perceived consequences of
actions and inactions
diverge,
and it has similar effects. Because
regret over action stems from the bad things that actually hap-
pened as a result of the action, the consequences are tied to a
particular event or decision. Although the consequences on the
whole may be bad, often there is some good that stems from
the action as well. Thus, when people think of their regrettable
actions, they often think of compensatory "silver linings." In
contrast, many regrettable inactions are not tied as closely to a
particular event or decision. Often it is not the failure to act in
a particular moment that is regrettable, but one's accumulated
failure to, say, get closer to one's parents, spend more time with
one's children, or more diligently pursue one's career aspira-
tions.
As a result, inactions are less likely to prompt thoughts
about compensatory gains. Regrettable omissions, in other
words,
tend to be remembered in the long-term only for being
regrettable, whereas regrettable commissions are more likely to
be remembered for a number of qualities—qualities that only
on the whole are unfortunate.
The
Differential Cognitive Availability
of
Regrettable
Action
and
Inaction
The open-ended nature of regrets of inaction and the closed
nature of regrets of action also have implications for how fre-
quently each type of regret is brought to mind. There have been
suggestions since at least the 1920s that people tend to remem-
ber incomplete tasks and unrealized goals better than those that
have been finished, accomplished, or resolved (Zeigarnik,
1935).
The original interpretation of this "Zeigarnik" effect was
that the intention to carry out a task generates a state of psycho-
logical tension that keeps the issue alive until the task is com-
plete and the tension is released (Lewin, 1935,
1951).
The extra
mental work that
is
devoted to unfulfilled intentions constitutes
additional rehearsal time that makes them more memorable.
There are obvious parallels between incomplete tasks and re-
grettable omissions. Many regrets of inaction involve things
that could still be accomplished at any time. One might regret
never having learned to speak French, play the violin, or talk
with real intimacy to friends and family, but these are all things
that can still be done whenever the sting of regret is felt. One's
accent may never be as good, one's ear never as developed, and
one's intimate moments not as numerous as they would have
been if one had acted earlier, but much of the gratification such
activities might bring can still be obtained. To be sure, many
regrettable inactions involve failing to seize a moment that is
364THOMAS GILOVICH AND VICTORIA HUSTED MEDVEC
long past. For these, there is no second chance. The case is
closed. However, for many other regrets of omission, the oppor-
tunity and temptation to act still exist. Regrettable omissions
often belong as much to the present as they do to the past. This
sense of incompleteness and possibility that surrounds failures
to act keeps them alive longer.
This is in marked contrast to most regrettable actions. These
belong almost entirely to the past. We messed up. We might
worry about it now and vow to do better in the future, but the
event itself
lies
entirely in the past. The story of our regrettable
actions tends to be closed; the story of our failures to act, open.
Because regrettable inactions are more alive, current, and in-
complete than regrettable actions, one is reminded of them
more often. A regret that one is reminded of more often is a
regret one experiences more often. Thus, this Zeigarnik-like as-
pect of regrettable omissions may not increase the intensity of
the emotional pain over the failure to act, but it does increase
the frequency with which one feels it.
Final
Thoughts
One question that awaits further research is the extent to
which the findings examined here—both the greater regret of
action in the short-term and the greater regret of inaction in the
long run—are influenced by cultural norms. Western society
seems to revere action and disdain inaction, and so the abun-
dance of long-term regrets of inaction in our sample of respon-
dents may be attenuated in people from a less action-oriented
culture. In addition, the overwhelming majority of our subjects'
regrets of inaction stemmed from failures of self-actualiza-
tion—not getting enough education, not adequately fulfilling
the role of parent or
child,
or not developing some talent. These
regrets may be particularly prominent in Western cultures that
stress
self-actualization (Lasch,
1979).
In contrast, regrets of
ac-
tion, more often than regrets of
inaction,
involve moral trans-
gressions in which harm is done to another person
(e.g.,
"whip-
ping my son when he
was
a
boy,"
"talking about a friend behind
her back," "breaking off a relationship in an unkind way").
Thus,
it is possible that regrets of action may be more promi-
nent, and more psychologically enduring, in more communitar-
ian cultures that stress duty and responsibility to others more
than self-fulfillment.
It is also important to note that the observed tendency for
regrets of omission to increase in prominence with the passage
of time
is
only that—a
tendency.
Surely not
all
regrettable omis-
sions follow this pattern. For example, one might be so frus-
trated by one's "progress" through the supermarket checkout
line that one contemplates switching
to
an adjacent line (Miller,
1991).
Suppose one decides not to switch, but then watches in
annoyance as the line one had eyed does indeed move more
rapidly. One can truly be said to regret the decision, but this is
not the type of regret that is likely to intensify over
time.
The
consequences are too minor for the event to occupy one's mind
for very long and
so
the psychological mechanisms
we
have out-
lined to account for this temporal pattern are unlikely to be
engaged. Regrets such as these either level off
or,
more likely,
diminish. Nevertheless, because several distinct mechanisms
appear to give rise to the observed temporal pattern to the ex-
perience of regret, one would expect—indeed
we
have shown
that there
is
no shortage of the type of regrettable
omissions
that
do intensify with the passage of
time.
In fact, some may be troubled by our invoking so many dis-
tinct mechanisms to account for our
results.
Indeed, all else be-
ing equal, it is surely more satisfying when a single mechanism
explains
a given
phenomenon. However, for many complex psy-
chological phenomena there simply is no single underlying
mechanism, and so this concern is not always compelling. In
fact, we were initially drawn to this research topic in part be-
cause so
many mechanisms seemed to be involved. Each of the
psychological processes that we identified seem to us to be in-
triguing, not just as an explanation of the regret results, but as
a psychological phenomenon in its own right. The relationship
between confidence and temporal distance, the amount of
dis-
sonance reduction devoted to errors of omission and commis-
sion, and the relative impact of compelling versus restraining
forces all tell us something potentially significant about the hu-
man condition and therefore represent worthy subjects of
inves-
tigation quite apart from their role in the experience of regret.
But
we
did not undertake this research because of the mech-
anisms alone, of
course.
Everyone has regrets, and yet, as we
mentioned earlier, little is known about the underlying psychol-
ogy of regret. This
is
unfortunate because our current cultural-
historical context is one that is likely to maximize the experi-
ence of
regret.
In earlier times and in cultures with more rigid
behavioral prescriptions, there were fewer decisions to be made
and therefore
less
potential for regret. Marriages
were
arranged;
stations in life were inherited; the choices among various mate-
rial goods were much narrower. Things could hardly be more
different today: One of
the
difficulties of modern life is coping
with all of the choices that are available. With a greater range of
choice comes increased opportunities for regret, and so a re-
lated problem with modern life
is how to
minimize or
cope
with
the experience of regret. We offer the present results as some-
thing to keep in mind when trying to accomplish these
goals.
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Received October 18, 1993
Revision received February
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Accepted February 7, 1994
... As should be clear from our methodology, our primary concern is understanding and characterizing the emotional experience that people describe as relief. Although there are a number of influential survey-type studies of everyday experiences of regret (e.g., Bonnefon & Zhang, 2008;Feeney et al., 2005;Gilovich & Medvec, 1994;Roese & Summerville, 2005;Zeelenberg, Van Dijk, Van der Pligt, et al., 1998), there has been no equivalent study of everyday experiences of relief. However, it is clear that the studies of everyday experiences of regret have had a considerable impact on how this emotion is conceived of, both in terms of understanding when and why regret is usually experienced (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995), and in characterizing its typical function and relation to cognitive processes (e.g., Inman & Zeelenberg, 2002;Tsiros & Mittal, 2000;Zeelenberg et al., 2002). ...
... As we have pointed out, in the decision-making literature, relief is sometimes characterized as being the antonym of regret, and, within the regret literature, the role of personal responsibility has been an important focus of research. Indeed, one of the central findings of Gilovich and Medvec's (1994) landmark study of self-reported regrets is that the vast majority of the described instances of regret -over 95% -involved events that were within the person's control. It has since been documented experimentally that the experience of regret tends to accompany thoughts about how one could have, or should have, acted differently -by contrast to disappointment, which is often experienced when a negative outcome happens independently of one's own decision . ...
... Moreover, even in circumstances in which events are under one's personal control, it is possible to distinguish between experiences of regret following action versus those following inaction. In Gilovich and Medvec's (1994) study of self-reported regrets, people describe regret experiences following both action and inaction. Nevertheless, there is a temporal pattern to this dimension of regret. ...
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... Counterfactual explanations appear naturally in human cognition. They are a pattern that feature prominently in our day-to-day thoughts [67], with the capability to think counterfactually emerging around the age of two [68]. They are also contrastive, aligning with human explanatory preferences (see Everyday Explanations section). ...
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