Psychologists Look at Phenomenon of Regret : Science: Why is it so much more aggravating to miss your flight by 4 minutes than by 30? The research is part of a larger topic called ‘counter-factual thinking.’


“Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention . . . “

Frank Sinatra’s signature song brushes them off, and most people would rather forget about them too. But a handful of psychologists are taking a closer look at regret, in an effort to better understand this most haunting form of distress.

The topic is still in its infancy and little experimentation has been done. But researchers are getting some early understanding of such questions as:

* Why is it so much more agonizing to miss your flight by four minutes than by a full 30 minutes if you get to the airport half an hour late?


* What do people regret more, things they did or things they did not do?

* Is there any good use for regret?

Psychological research into regret is part of a larger topic called “counter-factual thinking,” the pondering of the what-if’s and if-only’s of life.

People routinely imagine alternative outcomes for things that happen to them, said psychologist Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. And studies show that the easier those alternatives are for a person to imagine, the more intense is that person’s emotional reaction to what really did happen, he said.

Which apparently explains why, if you get to the airport half an hour late, it’s more aggravating to miss your flight by four minutes than 30.

“It’s easier to imagine just having gotten to the airport four minutes earlier than we did than to imagine having gotten to the airport 30 minutes earlier,” said University of Michigan psychologist Janet Landman.

“We can sure imagine, if only there hadn’t been . . . that slow truck.”

But to make up a half-hour would take “a whole chain of events that we would have to undo,” said Landman, whose upcoming book “Regret: The Persistence of the Possible,” is to be published by Oxford University Press.

Landman’s research shows that people regret action more than inaction, but she thinks there may be more to the story.


Just why actions would provoke more regret is not clear because so little research has been done on the topic, she said. One reason might be that it is easier to imagine an alternative to action--status quo--than to inaction. She also suspects that people feel more responsible for the outcome of their actions than for the result of doing nothing, and that the greater responsibility may make for greater regret.

The idea that action provokes greater regret than inaction is backed up by experiments, such as one in which people considered the stories of two hypothetical investors. Investor A sold one stock and bought another, and ended up losing $1,000. Investor B decided to keep the first stock instead, and lost $1,000.

Who will feel more regret? Most people name Investor A, who bought the losing stock.

But the idea of greater regret for action than inaction “seemed to conflict for us with a fairly common observation,” Gilovich said, “that if you talk to people about their biggest regret, they don’t mention things they did, they tend to think about things they didn’t do.”

Repeated polls over the years have found that people’s biggest lifetime regret is not getting enough education, or not taking it seriously enough.

Gilovich found that when elderly people were asked about their greatest lifetime regrets, 63% of the regrets were inaction, chiefly missed educational opportunities and spending too little time with friends and relatives.

Gilovich’s interpretation of the action versus inaction data is that there is a time factor at work: People regret actions more than inactions at first, but over a long period they come to regret inactions more than actions.


He found that when people were asked for their biggest regret of the last week, action was regretted more than inaction by a slight margin. But when they were asked about the biggest regret in their lives, 84% cited an inaction.

In another experiment, college students were asked to consider two hypothetical students who were dissatisfied at their schools. One switches schools, the other decides to stay put, and both end up regretting their decisions.

When students were asked which hypothetical student would feel worse, a question Gilovich said implied an answer for the short-term, most students named the one who changed schools. But when asked who would feel worse in the long run, most named the student who stayed put.

Why would the passage of time make a difference?

There are three possible explanations, Gilovich said: Something reduces regret for action over time, something boosts regret for inaction over time, or other factors affect how often a person is reminded of their regret.

There is probably no single explanation, and research shows evidence for all three alternatives, he said recently.

For example, there is reason to believe that people are more often reminded in daily life of inactions than actions, he said. Research from the turn of the century shows that unfinished tasks are better remembered than completed ones, he said. And regretted inactions are often like uncompleted tasks, such as never taking up the piano or traveling to France, he said.


“Since you can potentially begin right now (to complete such a task), it’s sort of an open issue” that pricks at the brain with only the slightest reminder, he said.

In contrast, past actions may have results for a while, but “eventually they’re a closed book,” he said.

Another unanswered question about regret is whether there are uses for it. Landman thinks there are.

“It informs us that something we care about has gone wrong, like physical pain informs us that something has gone wrong, and we better do something about it,” she said.

Regret can reveal what is truly important to people and help them analyze what mistakes to avoid next time, she said.

She speaks from experience. In 1985, she bought a used car through a newspaper ad. The test drive had gone well, and since it was a Sunday and her mechanic wasn’t available, and the seller had another prospective buyer, she bought it.


Two weeks later she learned the transmission would have to be rebuilt.

As she pondered the experience, she realized that just checking Consumer Reports was not good enough. She should have taken the car to her mechanic before buying.

“So the next time I bought a used car, I did both,” she said. “And I haven’t regretted that.”