Sunday, September 9, 2012


It is impossible to go through life without ever experiencing regret, even when we intentionally avoid doing things we'll later wish we hadn't (or intentionally seek to do things we know we'll regret not doing).  We are human; we make mistakes.  Our mistakes beget unpleasant outcomes.  In the midst of coping with the consequences of our bad decisions, it is only natural to wish we'd made different choices.  This is regret: to feel a sense of personal responsibility for the way things turned out and to imagine that things would be better if we'd only decided differently. 

Regret is a natural consequence of being free to make choices.  Studies have shown that the very act of choosing almost immediately leads to regret and causes the unchosen option or options to appear more attractive.  Because there is regret associated with each unchosen option, more options leads to more regret.  Researchers have found that we anticipate this regret and take it into account everytime we make a decision.  When tasked with choosing from a large number of options, the amount of regret we anticipate can seem a bit daunting.  This is consistent with evidence suggesting that the more options we have, the less likely we are to make any choice. 

Of course, deciding not to choose is also a choice.  We opt out of making a decision so we won't have to face the regret associated with the options we did not select.   And so we are spared, at least in the short term.  We have not, however, successfully avoided our regret; we've merely postponed it.  Here I borrow a quote from Gilovich and Medvec: "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 greater grief." 

The research gives some credence to my own personal decision-making philosophy.  (Not that the "philosophy" itself was developed with this in mind.  Still, it's nice when there's actual evidence to support the quirky way I do things).    When faced with multiple options, I gather a small amount of basic information about each of them. (Notice the emphasis on small and basic). This allows me to rule out any options that clearly aren't a good fit.  At that point, I am typically left with several equally attractive alternatives. 

The way I see it, if all options are equally attractive then it really doesn't matter which one I choose.  It's unlikely that gathering more information will help.  You see, the more I learn about each option, the more attractive they will all seem.  This will make it more difficult for me to choose one over the others.  So I just pick one.  It doesn't matter how; maybe I'll write them all down on little slips of paper, put them in a bowl, mix them up, and pull one out.   Maybe I'll cut out pictures of them, lay them out in a circle around me, close my eyes, spin around, come to a stop, and point.  Whatever.  I just pick one.  And once I've made my choice, I fully commit to it.  I don't second guess myself.  I don't keep looking for other possible options "just to see" if I could've gotten a better deal.  I make my selection and commit to it; then I move on.

Have I managed to eliminate all traces of regret from my life?  Um, no.  I'm human, after all.  Like everyone else, I'm a work in progress...


  1. Do we really have a choice? It is a silly game we play with our mind, so we can get to some spicy regret later.
    The bulk of our life plays out regardless of seemingly apparent choices.

  2. Always insightful. I don't have too many regrets but the ones I have seem to last an eternity. I have learned to forgive myself. Sometimes forgiveness doesn't arrive soon enough!

    I appreciate you. Thank you for your writings.



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