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Description: How quickly can you come up with a personal example of a situation where you’re a choice that you made (or did not make) resulting in regrets, wishing you had done something different or simply wondering if perhaps you should have done something different or not acted at all. If people are honest then they can usually come up with an example or two pretty quickly. It seems that having regrets (even if it just a few, …. too few to mention; according to Frank Sinatra in his classic “I did it my way”) is a part of being human. But can our experience of regret be managed and where does the whole business of regret come from? The brief article linked below provides a light overview of how we might begin to answer these questions. Give it a look and if anything there peaks your curiosity then have a look in the Further Reading section down at the bottom of this post for a few places to start expanding your understanding of regret.

Source: How to Have Fewer Regrets, Malia Wollan, The New York Times, Magazine.

Date: December 8, 2017

Photo Credit:  Radio, The New York Times

Links:  Article Link —

So, the onset of the ability to experience regret is developmental. That is, we have to be able to consider counterfactuals (coulda, woulda, shoulda…..) before regret is possible. From there it can be quite demanding. We can think of OCD as perhaps at least partially driven by regret (going back over a behavioural scheme over and over and over again). Regret can also figure in life choices. Leaving romance aside for another time, regret can play a central role in how we make decisions about things like our career directions. Think about this standard life process: you generate a list of career options, you gather data about what each is like, what each involves, and you think about what each would be like if you picked it and you narrow your choices down to 2 to 4 of the better options and then you  …. What?…….., you agonize…. Well, if you have difficulty letting go of counterfactuals you do and you especially do if you decide or believe that you have only made the right choice of a career path if it is, in fact, the very best possible career path for you (be the best you, you can be) and as a result your life could be quite miserable. This is a good example, however, of how we can benefit greatly from a mental set change. I think of this as akin to the travelers’ dilemma ( . You are planning a trip to an exotic part of the world and you are going to stay for 2 weeks. You read extensively about what there is to do there you research accommodations, historical sites, day trips to nearby amazing places and you plan an itinerary. At some point either before you go or after you get there you will likely be hit with the paralyzing realization that you are not going to be able to “do it all” and there are going to be some wonderful things you are going to miss in or around your destination. So what are you to do? How are you going to be sure you put together the “best possible” itinerary? Agonize, agonize, agonize and regret regret, regret. Counterfactuals have you firmly in their life sapping grip! Except, you do not have to be in that place, full of mental/emotional agony and regret. The solution to the travelers’ dilemma that also applies to career and other life decisions is to shift you thinking and to start with the understanding that while there ARE many possible voyages or journeys, if you build one based on what interests you, what engages you and what energizes you, the results will be a wonderful trip (and a wonderful life). In my own work on identity development and life planning and decision making among people of all ages but particularly among emerging adults (18 to 28) an appreciation of this mind set adjustment virtually eliminates the “agonize” stage of the process and also virtually eliminates pre-and post-decision regrets. It is well worth thinking about.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What are regrets and how do they arise in the course of human decision making?
  2. How do regrets arise in the course of trip or life planning?
  3. What sorts of strategies make sense to you as ways of dealing with regret?

References (Read Further):

Krott, N. R., & Oettingen, G. (2017). Mental contrasting of counterfactual fantasies attenuates disappointment, regret, and resentment. Motivation and Emotion, 1-20.,%20N.%20R.%20&%20Oettingen,%20G.%20(2017).%20Motivation%20and%20Emotion.pdf

Byrne, R. M. (2016). Counterfactual thought. Annual review of psychology, 67, 135-157.

Roese, N. J., & Epstude, K. (2017). The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking: New Evidence, New Challenges, New Insights. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology.

McCormack, T., O’Connor, E., Beck, S., & Feeney, A. (2016). The development of regret and relief about the outcomes of risky decisions. Journal of experimental child psychology, 148, 1-19.

Feldman, G., & Albarracín, D. (2017). Norm theory and the action-effect: The role of social norms in regret following action and inaction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 69, 111-120.


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