Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Read Now or Regret Later

August 08, 2004

Without regret, we are compelled to comment on a new study of regrets, and a little-known but powerful psychological concept called anticipated regret. Who would anticipate that anticipating regret appears now to play a substantial, invisible and apparently unnecessary role in countless everyday American lives? Those folks opting not to read all the way down here may regret their decision, which could have been anticipated.

Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard led a team of four psychologists -- who may or may not regret having said some things to relatives over the years -- that explored the very human emotion of regret and its widespread effects. Bear with us here, because what makes humans so interesting is their complexity -- often reflected, regrettably, in complex emotions later regretted.

It seems, according to long-established research, that most of us make many personal and even business decisions based not so much on what we think is the best choice, though we think we're thinking that, but on whether we anticipate feeling regret about picking one option over another. Or not picking an option at all.

You may not be overjoyed to marry someone, buy that house right now, accept a job transfer or hurriedly purchase the last item on sale. But you choose one now anyway, fearing the bad feeling of blaming yourself later for not choosing or choosing wrong. Getting an incorrect answer on a multiple-choice test is disappointing; erasing a correct answer and switching to a wrong one is regrettable. Do the words "How could I be so stupid?" ring bells? See what we mean about complex?

People expect to feel more regret when they fail by a narrow margin than by a wide one, when they accept bad advice than when they reject good advice, when they act foolishly, when their choices are unconventional and when they learn later of alternatives they might have chosen. Ever contemplate buying $2.14 gas now because you anticipate regrets when pumps up ahead run $2.20? Might you feel more regret over picking losing lottery numbers than if you let the computer pick them?

Gilbert et al ran test scenarios and confirmed these feelings. People thought they'd feel worse having just missed the subway than arriving several minutes late. What researchers also found, however, was that no matter how much regret subjects anticipated, none actually experienced anywhere near as much as they expected. It turns out the human ability to absolve ourselves, to rationalize quickly and to dodge blame, even from ourselves, is quite remarkable.

The lesson: People often make unnecessary decisions based on baseless fears of later regrets. Gilbert suggests that people's choices may provide "emotional insurance" they don't really need. Which we anticipate would be regrettable.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|