Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Wisdom of Regret and the Fallacy of Regret Minimisation

The Stages of Life by Caspar David Friedrich

I regret many things.

I regret throwing a tantrum on my tenth birthday when I didn’t get the present I wanted. I regret not taking part in those science and math quizzes when I was in school simply because I was annoyed that the teacher had put my name down without asking me first. I regret not thinking about what I wanted to study in college a bit more. I regret not taking that PhD scholarship in London when I was offered it. I regret my hesitation about getting married, and the effect it had on my partner. I regret making my sister cry one Christmas when I pushed my sarcastic sense of humour too far. I regret not applying for that grant when I had a chance. I regret the many cruel things I have said to family and friends over the years — they seem to flow out of me for no apparent reason. I regret not taking the more prestigious job that I was offered just because I worried about the stress and pressures it may have placed on my personal life. I regret not spending more time with my sister before she died.

My regrets are an important part of my life. I don’t think about them all the time, but they occasionally bubble to the surface, and when they do I like to wallow in them for awhile and reflect upon the ‘roads not taken’. Thinking about what might have been gives me a new perspective on what is.

I was recently criticised for taking this approach to regret. A close friend of mine told me that they never think about their regrets. They find regret to be a useless self-indulgence. They argued, reasonably enough, that you cannot change what you have already done. The future is the only thing under your control. So wallowing in regret just makes you feel unnecessarily worse about the fixity of the past, and can also act as an impediment to changing the future for the better. When pushed, this friend eventually conceded that prospective regret (i.e. thinking about what you might regret if you make a particular choice) might have some value. In this regard, they were in good company. I told them that Jeff Bezos — currently the richest man in the world — has long advocated ‘regret minimisation’ as a useful decision-making heuristic.

But I think both my friend and Jeff Bezos are wrong. Regret is not useless. It is an essential part of the well-lived life and it is important that we appreciate and reflect upon our regrets. Furthermore, the advice that we should ‘minimise regrets’ when making decisions is, oftentimes, practically useless, particularly when it comes to making those momentous choices that end up defining our lives. That said, there is certainly a danger of wallowing unnecessarily in vague existential regrets (and I am guilty of this from time to time) but the solution to that is not to dismiss and ignore our regrets. The solution is to reflect upon our regrets more deeply.

That, at any rate, is what I shall be arguing in this article. I’ll divide my discussion into four main parts. First, I will offer a more precise definition of regret and identify the different forms it can take. Second, I will concede that regret is often unjustified, but argue that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it more often. Third, I will critically evaluate evidence from psychology that suggests that we can adopt the ‘regret minimisation’ heuristic when making decisions. And fourth, I’ll draw together the strands of the preceding discussion and argue that thinking about regret is an integral part of the well-lived life.

1. What is regret anyway?
Regret is such a common experience that you may think it doesn’t need a definition. We all know what it is anyway. But there are different forms of regret and there are some closely related experiences that overlap with, and are sometimes conflated with, regret. It’s consequently important to have a clear sense of what it actually is. Four major clarifications are in order.

Regret is, first and foremost, a negative comparative concept. It stems from comparing options that arose in some original decision-making context. Suppose you are faced with a decision — A or B? — and you must make a choice. You choose B. Retrospective regret arises when you look back at the choice you made. You compare the life you actually lived (as a result of choosing B) with the life you could have lived (if you had chosen A). You retrospectively regret the choice if you think the live you have lived is worse than the life you could have lived. Anticipative/prospective regret arises when you look forward to the possible futures associated with the choices you face. You compare those possible futures and wonder ‘if I chose A, would I regret not choosing B?’ (or vice versa).

Regret can be associated with trivial decisions or momentous decisions (or anything in between those two extremes). The differences are important. Regretting what you ordered at a restaurant is very different from regretting your decision to decline a big job offer. The former is soon forgotten and repaired; the latter has knock-on implications for nearly all aspects of your life. Regret can also be associated with different timescales. Retrospectively regretting what you did last night is different from regretting what you did 30 years ago. Likewise, anticipating the regret you might feel tomorrow morning if you have another drink is different from regretting how you might feel in 30 years time if you break up with your long-term partner. In addition to this, although philosophers and psychologists often think about regret in relation to binary choices, the reality is that regret can be associated with decisions involving a multiplicity of options, as well as from long sequences of decisions, not just single decision-making moments. The significance of these differences is discussed in more detail below.

Regret is usually understood to be an emotion: you feel bad when you compare options. But regret also has a cognitive component.* You don’t just feel bad about how things have (or might) turn out; you judge one option to be superior to another. I like to think of this in terms of a distinction between first-order and second-order mental states. First-order mental states are immediate, unreflective, largely involuntary reactions to the world (or drivers of behaviour). Second-order mental states are more deliberate, reflective and voluntary assessments of first-order mental states. Regret usually starts off as a first-order mental state: an immediate, unreflective negative reaction to what has been and what might have been. But it then either ends up as a second-order mental state — i.e. a reflective endorsement of the first order feeling — or gets rejected as irrational, unjustified, or unhelpful.

Finally, regret should be, though often is not, distinguished from other closely related mental states. Regret, for example, should be distinguished from remorse. Regret is self-focused and often amoral (or immoral): it is a negative assessment of yourself for the choices you have made regardless of their moral character. Remorse is other-focused and moral: it is a negative assessment of yourself for the choices you have made because of how they have affected others. The precise relationship between regret and remorse is complex. They are definitely closely related: many of the ‘regrets’ I listed in the introduction also provide grounds for remorse. I suspect the best way to think about it is to see remorse as a special, moralised, sub-species regret. Similarly, regret should be distinguished from general sadness or lamentation about the state of the world. Following Christopher Cowley I think it is best to see regret as something that arises from the counterfactual comparison of decisions that we have voluntarily made, not as something that arises from the counterfactual comparison of how history has unfolded. Thus, while I lament the election of Donald Trump as US President, I don’t regret it because it wasn’t my choice. This distinction between regret and lamentation is not always made in the literature. Philosophers, following the work of Bernard Williams, often refer to ‘agent regret’ as a special sub-type of regret that arises from choices we have made, yet still hold out the possibility of regretting things beyond our control. I prefer not to do this.

That’s enough by way of initial clarification. Let’s now consider three arguments about the value of regret.

2. First Argument: Regret is often irrational
The first argument is somewhat unusual, given the set-up in the introduction. It concedes that regret can often be irrational. Many times when we feel profound regret about the choices we have made, we are wrong to do so. Or, to put it in more philosophical terms, many times we should reject our first-order feelings of regret. They are often misleading and unhelpful. The philosopher Paddy McQueen explains why this is the case with something he calls the ‘justified decision perspective’ (JDP) on regret.

McQueen argues that a decision is justified if two conditions are met: (a) it flows from or is grounded in who were are (or were) at the time of the decision and (b) it is based on reasons that are (or were) available to us at that time. If I choose to study law at university because I have a long-standing interest in criminal justice, am committed to the right to a fair trial, and want to dedicate my life to protecting that right, then my decision is justified, given my values and preferences at that time. If I choose to study medicine, despite my passion for justice, and because my father expects it of me, my decision is not justified.

McQueen argues that if a decision is justified at the time that it is made then it should not be regretted. This is true even if the decision turns out badly. Why is this? There are a few reasons. The first is that if your decisions are grounded in who you are and in the information available to you at the time, then, in an important sense, there is no better decision you could have made. You did everything right within your epistemic limits. The second reason is that the badness of any outcome may be (and perhaps often is) a matter of luck or chance. For example, my career in the law might go badly because I don’t get offered the one case that makes my career, or because the government cut back payments to the sector, or because of some general downturn in the economy. These things are beyond my control and could not have been known at the time of the decision: I should not blame myself for them. The third reason is that if we over-ascribe regret to our justified decisions we may learn the wrong lesson from our past failures. If a bad outcome was down to luck, and had nothing to do with the justifiability of our decisions, there is a danger that we avoid making the same kind of decision again, even when it might be the right decision and might turn out well the next time around. In other words, there is a danger that we become irrationally averse to a certain kind of decision just because we now feel badly about the outcome. Professional poker players have a name for this kind of decision-making error. They call it resulting, i.e. overemphasising results in figuring out the best strategy. Finally, and in line with what my friend said to me, if we over-ascribe regret to justified decisions, we just end up making ourselves unnecessarily miserable, i.e. assuming that our lives are worse than they actually are (or were) just because of how things turned out. People who regret getting into a relationship because it ends badly often make this mistake: they ignore all the good stuff that happened before the ending.

Granting that justified decisions should not be regretted, the key move in McQueen’s argument is the claim that regret is often unjustified. This is particularly true, he argues, for momentous decisions and decisions that involve long projections backward or forward in time. It is easiest to understand this argument by considering an example. I mentioned earlier that I often regret my decision not to take a PhD scholarship at a university in London. This was a decision I made just over 11 years ago. I regret it because it was a generous financial offer and it would have been at a good university — much better than the university at which I got my PhD. I sometimes wonder what life might have been like if I took up that offer. I imagine that I would be in a much better place, career-wise, than I am now. The reputational advantage of being at a more prestigious university, combined with the social networks and other opportunities I would have been afforded, could have allowed me to build much more early career capital. I’d surely be a professor at a top tier university by now! On the other hand (and there is usually an ‘other hand’), I did receive an even more generous scholarship at an Irish university, and I haven’t done badly for myself. Furthermore, staying in Ireland helped me to stay together with my long-term partner (now spouse) and at the time I didn’t think we would survive if I moved to the UK (though I tend to discount this more now because we did, ultimately, survive my spending three years in the UK).

Is my regret rational? Probably not. Consider the imaginative journey I have to undertake to properly evaluate this regret. I must project myself back in time to my past self (my self of mid-2007), imagine his values and beliefs at the time, and try to strip away what I now believe and value. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, I also have to project myself into a hypothetical present self (my ‘counterfactual self’) and imagine what his life would be like right now. I’m likely to commit three epistemic errors on this imaginative journey. First, I’m unlikely to be able to disentangle my present beliefs and values from my past beliefs and values. My present beliefs and values are undoubtedly going to colour my interpretation of my past decisions. Indeed, you can see me doing this above: I explicitly refer to things I now know about the resiliency of my relationship to long-distance separation that I did not know at the time. Second, the values and beliefs of my past self are probably unknowable and unrecoverable. Unless I wrote down exactly what I thought and believed at the time (and I didn’t) there is just too much epistemic distance between who am I now and who I once was for me to fairly recapture what the decision was like for me at that time. I’ll just end up fabricating a past identity. Third, it is going to be very hard for me to know how my counterfactual self would feel about his predicament. The decision to go to London would probably have been transformative. It would have led to many other changes in my character and outlook. So my counterfactual self would be very different from how I am now. He may well be sitting at his laptop writing an article about how much he regrets going to London, and how he wishes he hadn’t sacrificed his relationship at the altar of his career.

This is to talk purely of retrospective regret. But similar epistemic errors arise in the case of anticipative/prospective regret. It’s just that the imaginative journey is slightly different. In the case of anticipative regret, you don’t have to go back in time, but you do have to project your current self into at least two hypothetical futures and imagine what you would believe and value in those hypothetical futures. This is going to be highly speculative and dubious undertaking and will become more speculative and dubious the further forward in time you go. As I recall, Jeff Bezos likes to imagine what his 80-year-old future self would say about his present choices when trying to ‘minimise regret’. I suspect that in doing this Jeff Bezos is engaging in wishful and biased speculation. If he is anything like me (and to be fair he probably isn’t) he will just use this imaginative exercise as an excuse to project certain presently-preferred values into a fictional future. He’d be better off just focusing on what he currently values and knows.

This is not to say that regret is never justified. As McQueen makes clear in his article, there are times when our decisions are not justified and we know they are not justified given our beliefs and values at the time of the decision. Sometimes we are just not honest with ourselves about what we really care about. We need to be on the look out for those moments. It’s also more likely that our assessment is justified when it involves a ‘short’ imaginative journey into the past or future: then we will actually be able to ground our choices in plausible beliefs about what our past and future selves will value. So regret is sometimes rational and appropriate. We just have to be wary of the epistemic errors we commonly commit when thinking about it. Many times when we feel regretful we should reject and reconsider that feeling.

As I say, I’m willing to concede a lot of ground to this argument. But I think there are some problems with it. First, it imposes quite a high epistemic standard on the assessment of momentous decision-making. While McQueen is undoubtedly correct that there is significant uncertainty involved in comparing the outcomes of different decisions, particularly over long periods of time, we are often called upon to do this. Life throws numerous, momentous choices our way and we have to imagine how things might turn out, to at least some extent. There are better and worse ways of doing this — we can call upon the examples of others for guidance, and analyse data from scientific studies of such choices — but we shouldn’t be afraid of doing this (or of the need to sometimes experiment with our own lives). If we take the JDP too seriously, there is a danger that we think all such efforts are futile.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, we need to remember that McQueen’s argument is only about the second-order assessment of regret. We still have the first order feeling of regret with which to contend. Regret will often float into our minds unbidden and make us feel bad about choices we have made (or are about to make). Granted that these feelings are often irrational, we might like to develop strategies for reducing their presence in our lives. This is where we might like to follow Jeff Bezos’s guidance and minimise the first-order feeling of regret.

Let’s consider this idea in more detail by turning to the second argument.

2. Second Argument: There are ways to minimise regret
The second argument comes in two parts, both relatively simple and straightforward. First, it claims that we can, if we wish, implement certain strategies that help to minimise the feeling of regret. Second, it claims that, even though this is possible, we shouldn’t always strive to minimise regret. I’ve already partly defended this second aspect of the argument in the preceding section by highlighting how speculative and fanciful ‘regret minimisation’ reasoning often is, but I’ll say something more about it below.

Let's start with the claim that there are plausible strategies for regret minimisation. There have been a lot of psychological studies on regret over the years. And I mean a lot. Can we learn anything from these studies? One fairly robust finding, originally set out in a widely-cited paper from Gilovich et al (1995), and since developed in other studies, is that people regret inaction more than action. In other words, if you are faced with a choice between maintaining the status quo (e.g. staying with your current job) and doing something different/new (e.g. taking a new job) you are more likely to regret maintaining the status quo. So one thing you can do if you want to minimise the feeling of regret is to have a bias toward action.

Why do we regret inaction more than action? In a more recent paper, Davidai and Gilovich (2018) argue that there are four reasons as to why inaction is regretted more often than action. The first reason is that it is easier to ‘undo’ actions, i.e. if an action turns out badly you can quickly take steps to reverse its negative effects. The status quo, on the other hand, is harder to undo because there is an accumulated tangle of factors underlying it. The second reason is that it is easier to rationalise actions, i.e. justify them to yourself. Indeed, we humans are very good at inventing explanations for our behaviour; it’s a hardwired psychological trick we perform on ourselves all the time. The third reason is that it is often hard to retrospectively justify inaction. At the time, inaction is usually justified out of a fear of failure or change. This fear might be compelling and visceral in the moment, but we are often much more confident about our capacity to avoid failure when looking back. Finally, we have a tendency to remember unrealised goals more often than realised ones. Once we achieve a desired goal we quickly tire of it and move on to something new. But unrealised goals linger in the memory (‘I coulda been a contender!’). Inaction is usually associated with unrealised goals and is thus a more potent source of regret.

For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with this. I tend to regret inaction more than action in my own life. As mentioned earlier, I often regret not taking up a more prestigious job offer because of my fears about the stress and damage to my personal life that it might entail; but I don’t regret moving to England to take up a new job many years ago, even though that also involved a lot of personal stress and potential damage to my personal life. I see the mechanisms suggested by Davidai and Gilovich at play in these asymmetric attitudes. I can easily see the silver lining in my decision to take the job in England, and I can quickly discount and rationalise the costs associated with it. I can’t do the same with the decision to reject the more prestigious job offer. And yet, when I think rationally and reflectively about what has happened to my life since that rejection, I can’t honestly say that it has been all that bad. On the contrary, it’s been reasonably good. It’s just that it has been more of the same good as I had before. The tantalising possibility that things mightn’t have been all that bad if I took the offer lingers in my mind. It’s hard to shake, no matter how irrational it might be.

Are there any other lessons we can take from the psychology of regret? Maybe. In the same recent paper, Davidai and Gilovich (2018) seem to hit upon a new heuristic for minimising regret. In six experiments, involving mixed cohorts of subjects, they investigated the possibility that our strongest regrets stem from perceived gaps between who we are right now, and who we would like to be and who we think we ought to be. Using work originally done by Edward Higgins, they suggest that we each live with three versions of ourselves: (i) our actual self, i.e. who we really are, or more accurately, who we perceive ourselves to be at the present moment; (ii) our ideal self, i.e. the self we would like to be based on our hopes, goals and aspirations; and (iii) our ‘ought’ self, i.e. the self we think we should be based on moral norms or the expectations of others. Davidai and Gilovich hypothesised that people would experience regret based on perceived discrepancies between their actual selves and their ideal/ought selves, and that discrepancies between the actual self and the ideal self would be stronger sources of regret than discrepancies between the actual self and the ought self. This hypothesis was consistent with previous findings from Bonnie Ware in her interviews with patients in palliative care, and was strongly confirmed by their experiments. Across four of their experiments, approximately 3/4 of people had more regrets about actual-ideal gaps than they did about actual-ought gaps, and they also experienced these regrets more intensely.

Davidai and Gilovich tried to figure out why this might be the case. They hypothesised that failures to live up to the ‘ought’ version of yourself inspired more immediate and extensive psychological coping mechanisms. When you breach some perceived moral norm, you feel guilt and anxiety. These are ‘hot’ emotions and they have to be managed immediately in order to reduce psychological anguish. When you fail to live up to some ideal version of yourself, you feel disappointment and dejection. These are 'colder' emotions and so don’t inspire immediate coping mechanisms. Furthermore, the feeling of disappointment tends to build gradually over time and only reaches crisis point relatively late on, when it is harder to pinpoint the mistake and try to repair it. Again, in their final two experiments, Davidai and Gilovich found that this suggested mechanism seemed to explain the discrepancy in feelings of regret.

All of which could be taken to endorse the following tactic for minimising regret: focus predominantly on minimising the gap between your actual self and your ideal self (since you are more likely to ignore this and leave it fester), and not so much on minimising the gap between your actual self and your ought self (since you’ll more naturally deal with that problem when it arises).

There could be some wisdom to this, but I think there are some important caveats. First, as Davidai and Gilovich themselves point out, their studies are relatively preliminary and limited, and may not have been conducted on diverse enough populations (e.g. they didn’t have many older people in their sample who may have learned better how to cope with actual-ideal discrepancies). Given recent controversies about the lack of replicability in psychological science, more work needs to be done to confirm the value of this heuristic.

But even if it a robust finding, I think we should be cautious about trying to minimise regret in this way. One reason for this — which I explored in more detail in an earlier article on hypocrisy — is that ultimately discrepancies between all three versions of yourself may need to be resolved. Indeed, in some ways, gaps between the ideal version of yourself and the ought version of yourself are the most common and the most psychologically disturbing. Making a success of yourself often comes at the expense moral virtue: you frequently have to overlook your duties to others and favour personal ambition. This can lead to a very dissatisfying existence. Speaking from my own perspective, I find this to be the greatest psychological challenge I face. It is also the most intense source of my regrets. It’s all those times that I have favoured personal ambition and success over my duties to others that I feel the worst about. Furthermore, and contrary to Davidai and Gilovich’s suggestion, I don’t find it particularly easy to psychologically manage the ‘hot’ emotions associated with such regrets. My regrets about how I have treated family and friends are the ones that keep me up and night, and don’t go away no matter how much I do to repair the damage I have done. This may just be a personal idiosyncrasy, forged by my intellectual interest in morality, but it’s phenomenologically real to me.

More important than my personal idiosyncrasies, however, is the problem that following this regret minimisation strategy, and indeed the earlier one about inaction, assumes knowledge that we often don’t have. For example, it assumes that we have a good sense of who our ‘ideal’ and ‘ought’ (and, for that matter, ‘actual’) selves are, and ignores the possibility that we have multiple, conflicting, ideal (and ‘ought’) versions of ourselves. It’s this conflict of ideals and duties that, in my experience, is more challenging and more strongly associated with feelings of regret. There are many things I would like to be; there are many duties and virtues I think I should live up to. It’s the fact that I have to choose between them that is the source of most regret.

In addition to this, the regret minimisation heuristic ignores the fact that regret itself is a source of knowledge. If we spent our lives trying to minimise it, we wouldn’t learn and grow as people. In the end, this is the great danger of regret minimisation. It encourages wild speculation about our possible futures, and then breeds complacency and stubbornness when it comes to evaluating the consequences of our choices. If we follow the heuristic, we will probably do an initial cost/benefit analysis of our choices: “I’m more likely to regret option A when I’m 80 years old, so let’s go with option B”. Then, when B doesn’t turn out so well, we’ll more than likely find ourselves pre-committed to rationalising it. We’ll say to ourselves ‘I already determined that A would induce more future regret than B, so I don’t need to reevaluate my choice. I just need to ride it out.’ Trapped in this mindset, we become so afraid of regret that we suppress it; we don’t see it as a source of knowledge that can be used to our advantage.

4. Third Argument: We should embrace regret
This brings me to my final argument. This one draws together the threads that have emerged from the preceding analysis. The argument maintains that regret is not something to be avoided, suppressed or minimised. It is something to be embraced and rationally reflected upon. It is an essential part of life. Three factors bear this out.

First, and following on from what I just said in the previous section, we need to embrace the first-order feeling of regret as a source of knowledge about ourselves. We need to accept that we often don’t know what it is that we really want out of life. We have conflicting visions of ourselves and are notoriously bad at predicting how we will feel about our choices (a problem that psychologists call ‘affective forecasting’). The feeling of regret can reveal what really matters to us.

I’m not the first to make this point. In a nice article about this phenomenon, Justin White argues that regret is often ‘self-revelatory’ and that the information gleaned from regret can used to change our course in life:

We are potentially unique as creatures because the way we think of ourselves can feed back into the way we live. Regret can reveal things about us to ourselves in ways that can then impact how we engage with the world… regret can help us become aware of ourselves, including alerting us to blind spots, to our characteristics we are not fully aware of or to the things we desire or care about without being fully conscious of it…Revelatory regret, then, opens the possibility for a certain kind of self-directed change. 
(White 2017, 238)

You don’t get that advantage if you ignore regret or see regret as a useless emotion. You have to run the risk of regret to learn about yourself.

Second, we need to appreciate that we definitely cannot eliminate regret from our lives, and that sometimes it is impossible to even minimise regret. This is not just because we engage in epistemically unwarranted speculation when trying to do this, though that is a major problem. It is because sometimes we have to choose between different ideals and values, knowing that we will have some regrets no matter how things turn out. Go back to my decision not to take up the more prestigious job offer. I made that choice knowing that there was a strong likelihood that I would regret the outcome, no matter what it was. I decided to stay with my current job because I thought it would be better for my personal psychological well-being and my family life. So far, I have every reason to think that this was correct. Nevertheless, I did this knowing that I would probably regret not taking the chance of the more prestigious job: it was always going to be a tantalising 'what might have been'. But at the same time, I knew that if I took it, I would also more than likely regret the chance of having forgone a more peaceful and contentful personal and family life. There was a ‘tragedy’ to the choice. I had to choose between different visions of the person I think I am (and would like to be). Embracing the inevitability of prospective regret was part and parcel of this. This highlights yet another important function of regret in our lives: it forms our self-identity; it doesn’t just reveal it.

Third, and finally, none of this should be taken to imply that regret is always valuable. Regret can be very destructive. One major reason for this is that regret is always overdetermined. For every choice we make, there are probably dozens of choices we could have made, and thus dozens of possible futures we had to forgo. Some of these futures might have been very good. As these accumulate over the course of a lifetime, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed by what Cowley calls a vague ‘global or nihilistic regret’, i.e. a sense that things could have turned out so much better but you’re not exactly sure how. Cowley argues that we should do our best to avoid that kind of thinking. It doesn't give us any actionable information, it undermines the good things that actually did happen to us, and it just makes us feel miserable.

Cowley suggests that this is the real lesson to be learned from Tolstoy’s famous short story Ivan Ilych. The main character in that story is a successful lawyer and judge, who focuses mainly on his career instead of his family. He develops a mysterious and ultimately fatal disease. While bedridden with this disease he reflects on the choices he has made, and becomes convinced he chose wrongly. The story is commonly interpreted as a cautionary tale about choosing careerism and ambition over family life, but Cowley thinks this is a problematic lesson to draw from it. Ilych’s regrets are vague and non-specific. He’s not sure exactly what he should have done differently. He simply has a strong, possibly unjustified, sense that he ended up in the wrong place. As Cowley puts it:

I find the short story problematic as a cautionary tale about the perils of conventional ambitious bourgeois egotism. Indeed, I take an opposing cautionary tale from it: one should beware of falling into a twilight where one comes to reject all one’s previous life; without any constructive thought for what one should have done differently; without any attempt to distinguish the healthy from the unhealthy values of the highly-placed people in society; without any appreciation for the independent goodness of one’s job performance and job enjoyment. 
(Cowley 2017, 632)

This is the trap I sometimes fall into. I think of all the ‘woulda, coulda, shouldas’ and get the sense that my life is much worse than it could have been. That’s when I wallow in a negative and unproductive form of self-pity. My friend (whose admonitions inspired this article) is right that this emotional stagnation should be avoided. But the best way to do this is not to ignore regret or to think about it less. After all, the feeling of regret often comes unbidden into one’s life. The best thing to do is think about regret more rationally and reflectively. To use something like McQueen’s ‘justified decision perspective’ to properly assess those feelings and learn the right lessons from your past.

This is why I think regret is an important part of the well-lived life.

*Yes, I know that some people think emotions are partly cognitive.


  1. I think it's easier to minimize regret (regardless of whether that is desirable or not) if one doesn't accept the existence of contra causal free will. If one truly could not have acted other than how they did, what is there to regret? Of course, we all lead our lives under the illusion that we have free will and regret can exert a cause on our future actions just like any other deliberation.

    1. I think disbelieving in contra causal free will might help to minimise retrospective regret, though as you say it can be hard to shake the illusion and it would continue to be relevant for decision-making. It would be interesting, however, to experimentally test whether people who are avowed free will skeptics have less regret. Has anyone done such a study?

  2. If anyone would know, it would be Saul Smilansky. I just asked him and will let you know if and when he responds. Best regards and Happy New Year to you and yours, TAM.

  3. It's curious to consider the idea that if a decision is justified, then there should be no regret. The statement implies that it's something we can shake off with a logical argument. I once said yes to a surgery that went horribly wrong. My decision was definitely justified, as a panel of experts agreed (and provoked the decision), but that knowledge doesn't affect the feeling of regret in the least. A term not mentioned in #1 here is 'grief.' I have found it useful to go deeper into that sense of regret and actually grieve the imagined life regardless how misperceived and glorified that might be. It's like a child dying and parents grieving what might have been, even though it's not possible to know if the child would have actually been a great ball player or a common criminal. Like grief, the feeling of regret doesn't soon leave, and maybe doesn't ever leave completely, but it can at least be quieted by meeting it head on.

    1. I think that's an interesting and important point. The feelings of regret don't necessarily wither under the gaze of logic and rationality. I think it possible to moderate the feeling of regret when you are dealing with minor decisions, or with momentous decisions that are still correctable (or where you still have the possibility of changing things to minimise the harm done by the decision). But when the decision forecloses a whole avenue of possibilities (as might happen in the case of a surgery that went wrong), grieving the life that could have been seems apt.

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  5. A wonderful article. I really benefited from each word. Yet, I go for the idea that regret can never wither, especially if we know for sure that we can not get back in time to make up for our wrong choices.
    Knowing our true values is the best asset we can get from regret. However, it can somehow be very torturing because you will feel alienated in the context u find yourself in and even might try to blame those who u live with when u feel they don’t conform to your own newly discovered priorities.