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The True Meaning of Regret, According to Science

Everyone has regrets, but you always imagine that those regrets revolve around action you took and the mistakes you believe you’ve made. We focus so much on the decisions we make in the moment, wondering if we made the wrong choice in hindsight, but a recent study published in the journal Emotion indicates that the old adage still rings true: it’s not the things you do in life that you regret, it’s the things you don’t do.

In a study entitled “The Ideal Road Not Taken,” Cornell psychologists identified three elements that make up a person’s sense of self. Your actual self consists of qualities that you believe you possess. Your ideal self is made up of the qualities you want to have. Your ought self is the person you feel you should have been, according to your personal obligations and responsibilities.1

In surveying the responses of hundreds of participants in six studies, the researchers found that, when asked to name their single biggest regret in life, 76 percent of participants gave one top answer — they didn’t fulfill their ideal self. This indicates that we might have a flawed attitude and perception toward how we avoid regret.

We live in a world in which we are told that we’ll have a great life, if we follow the golden rules. So one figures that if they do all of the things that society expects them to do, like be a good citizen, get married at the appropriate time, make enough money to pay the bills, etc., they’ll feel happy and fulfilled with their life. But those are all qualities associated with your ought self, which the study found people have limited regrets about (in part because they actually act on decisions associated with it). But when it comes to your dreams and aspirations, people are more likely to let them just drift by unrealized, and that’s what really stings later on in life.

“People are quicker to take steps to cope with failures to live up to their duties and responsibilities (ought-related regrets) than their failures to live up to their goals and aspirations (ideal-related regrets),” the study says.

“When we evaluate our lives, we think about whether we’re heading toward our ideal selves, becoming the person we’d like to be. Those are the regrets that are going to stick with you, because they are what you look at through the windshield of life,” says Tom Gilovich, the Irene Blecker Rosenfeld Professor of Psychology at Cornell and lead author of the paper. He explains that, “the ‘ought’ regrets are potholes on the road. Those were problems, but now they’re behind you. To be sure, there are certain failures to live up to our ‘ought’ selves that are extremely painful, and can haunt a person forever; so many great works of fiction draw upon precisely that fact. But for most people those types of regrets are far outnumbered by the ways in which they fall short of their ideal selves.”

Moreover, the results of the study indicate that it’s not enough to encourage people to just “do the right thing.” We need to establish that it’s vital for people to act on their hopes and dreams before it’s too late, and that it isn’t normal to just keep putting them off indefinitely. “In the short term, people regret their actions more than inactions,” Gilovich said. “But in the long term, the inaction regrets stick around longer.”

The findings of this study strongly imply that we need to stop making excuses for our own inactions in life. So learn that language you’ve always wanted to study. Take that backpacking trip you’ve been talking about for ages. Write that book that’s been tinkering around in your head for years. Whatever it is, big or small, just do it. Don’t leave it for tomorrow. There’s only today, so you would best be wise to grab the bull by its horn, because as the old adage goes “the days are long, but the years are short.” Make it count.

The True Meaning of Regret, According to Science

Footnotes:

  1. Davidai, S., & Gilovich, T. (2018). The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people’s most enduring regrets. Emotion, 18(3), 439-452. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000326 []

Emily Waters

Emily Waters earned her Master's degree in industrial psychology with an emphasis in human relations. She possesses keen insight into the field of applied psychology, organizational development, motivation, and stress, the latter of which is ubiquitous in the workplace environment and in one’s personal life. One of her academic passions is the understanding of human nature and illness as it pertains to the mind and body. Prior to obtaining her degree, she worked in both the corporate and nonprofit sectors. Presently, she teaches a variety of psychology courses both in public and private universities.


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APA Reference
Waters, E. (2019). The True Meaning of Regret, According to Science. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 19, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-true-meaning-of-regret-according-to-science/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 15 Feb 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 15 Feb 2019
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