The psychology of regret: how inaction affects our sense of self

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We all have experienced regret, perhaps after making a hurtful comment or acting in a way that later turns out to be harmful. Regret is a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment at something that you have done, or failed to do. Psychologists Shai Davidai and Tom Gilovich have investigated the psychology of regret, illuminating a surprising and profound conclusion.

The regrets that will trouble us the most are not the mistakes or errors we made, but rather the actions we failed to take. Their study explores the psychology of the ideal self, its relationship with our most fierce regrets, and how it is possible to turn a regret into something positive.

Inaction and the ideal self

Psychologists consider that three main domains make up the perception of the self. Your “actual self” is who you currently are; your “ought self” is who you think you should be based on your obligations or responsibilities; your “ideal self” is who you could be, or who you might dream of being.

In their paper, Davidai and Gilovich explain that we develop our ideal self through our hopes, dreams, and desires for who we hope to be in the future. You may aspire to be financially successful, loved by your friends, or well-respected within your professional circle. However, if these aspirations are not achieved, the resultant feelings of regret can be long-lasting, and in some cases, even span a lifetime.

The study showed that whilst 24% of participants regretted the things they ought to have done, 76% regretted things that they could have done, but did not. The reason for this discrepancy could be that action-related regrets are easier to learn from, and therefore turn into a growth opportunity.

This theory is supported by a study led by Dr Giorgio Coricelli from the Centre of Cognitive Neuroscience in Lyon, France: the team found that our experience of regret is a learning tool that pushes us forward to behave differently and do better in the future. For example, if your start-up business fails, you can analyse what went wrong, reassess, and do things differently. This process improves your self-perception.

Regrets of past inaction, however, do not give us the same forward drive. If you decided not to apply for veterinary school in your adolescence, you may spend your adult life filled with regret that you do not have a career as a vet. Overcoming regret is a harder task when you don’t have any past action to learn from. In fact, a study found that whilst regret about actions reduces over time, regret related to inaction tends to be more enduring, and can even intensify as time goes by.

How to cope with regret

Although regret can be difficult to bear, reassuringly, psychologists have found that the experience of regret can lead to positive outcomes. Research suggests that regret can help to make sense of past experiences, facilitates future behaviours, provide insights into the self, and even helps to preserve social harmony. The following strategies could help you to manage regret to positively support your sense of self.

Psychology of regret - 3 strategies to cope with regret

1. Understand your choices

The first step in managing regret is to ascertain what sort of person you are. If your ideal self is filled with big dreams or aspirations, consider what is stopping you from taking risks. Perhaps a desire to be closer to your family prevents you from taking a job that would require significant travel. The importance of remaining financially secure might be the stumbling block that prevents you from taking the plunge as an entrepreneur. 

If being separated from family or risking your savings would cause deep regrets, then this may explain why you have not met the goals of your ideal self. Having a better understanding of what you are willing — or more importantly unwilling — to gamble with can be beneficial in soothing regrets about inactions. Recognising that the compromises you have made are the best fit for your three domains of self-perception can lift the burden of regret about inactions. 

2. Reframe your regrets

In their 2018 paper, Davidai and Gilovich found that, compared to a failure to live up to our ought self, failure to live up to our ideal self is more likely to linger in the form of regret. 

Unlike the immediate anxiety and guilt that occurs following an undesirable action, a gradual unfolding of disappointment occurs when our goals and aspirations go unmet. Regret of not going to drama school may not rear its head until years later when you find yourself stuck in an unenjoyable career.

Failure to live up to your ideal self is more frequently left unresolved, but reframing can help to shift the burden of regret. Regret is a difficult but effective tool for learning. The key is to find a way to grow from your regrets without loathing yourself for past decisions. For example, you could investigate what you could change in your current role to take steps towards your ideal self.

3. Choose action

Holding on to regret can be incredibly painful. Regret of an action can occur instantly but can lead to a desire not to repeat the behaviour. Inaction does not trigger the same immediate regret, but instead causes long term disappointment and “what if” rumination.

If fear has led to you turning down dream jobs or stopped you falling in love, learn from the regret these decisions left you with. The psychology of regret suggests that you are more likely to regret the things you do not do than the actions you take.

If you are unsure about a choice, it may be best to behave in a way that is active, rather than inactive. If you later come to regret the action, chances are the regret will be less intense than if you had declined to act.

Despite being a difficult emotion, regret has value in motivating corrective action. The presence of regret can be used to propel you into acting in a way that makes reparations for past decisions. If you miss an opportunity, peace can be found later in life by investigating the psychology behind your choices, and acting to feed your desires in a new, yet satisfying, way.