Monday, February 16, 2015

If your satisfaction with life is adversely affected by regret, what should you do about it?

The purpose of feelings of regret is presumably to help us to make better choices. That suggests that the best way to deal with regret is to make sure we make better choices in future. But regret can also put people into a frame of mind where they make poor choices and find it difficult to enjoy of life.

Regret does not feature prominently in conventional economic theory, even though everyone knows that sensible people take into account the potential for regret when they make decisions.  I suppose that is because Max U, the rational economic man of economic theory, does not let potential for regret prevent him from seeking to maximize utility. Even when economists allow for the possibility that Max might feel losses from the status quo to a greater extent than gains (as in prospect theory), the potential for disappointment and regret still does not come into consideration in the choices he makes.

It is normal for humans to feel disappointment when outcomes are worse than expected – for example when an investment fails even though we have good reasons to expect it to succeed. We feel regret about the opportunities we have foregone in making such investments. Regret is likely to be particularly intense if you mortgage your home to fund an unsuccessful investment.

It usually makes sense for people to take account of the potential for regret in making choices. It is also possible, however, for regret to lead people to make poor choices – choices they later regret. For example, when share prices slump, people who are unduly influenced by regret about the losses they have experienced may decide precipitously to reallocate funds to less risky investments, and later regret that they have sold at the bottom of the market. Alternatively, they may gamble to recover past losses (for example, by buying more shares) and come to regret that choice if the market falls even further. Some economic studies, for example theoretical and experimental work by Philip Strack and Paul Viefers, illustrates the potential for regret to influence decisions in this way.

There is some evidence that regret can have a large impact on life satisfaction. The results of a recent study by Olivia Pethel and Yiewei Chen seem particularly interesting, since these authors use a measure of the intensity of regret, in addition to indicators of negative decision outcomes and the tendency of people to feel regret. The study focuses on mature adults, people over age 35, who are old enough to have had opportunities to make decisions which they might regret. The findings of the study should probably be viewed with caution because of the small size of the sample (119 adults) sex composition (71% female) and the potential for bias in the informal sample selection process that was used.

The regret intensity variable used in the study was constructed by asking people how much they regretted having made wrong choices in various aspects of their life on a 5 point scale (1 = no regret; 5 = very strongly regret) and averaging across the scores. The results of the regression analysis suggest that “very strongly regretting” a wide range of choices in life would be likely to have a large impact on life satisfaction – reducing it by about 1.6 points on the 7 point scale used in the study.

The authors suggest that people who have lower levels of regret intensity may have developed effective emotional regulation strategies in dealing with life regrets. Unfortunately the study does not directly test the use of regulation strategies.  However, the regression results support previous findings that cognitive reappraisal - use of emotion regulation strategies that change the way situations that elicit negative emotions are viewed - has a positive impact on life satisfaction.

I will resist the temptation to conclude that everyone should be taught the bygones principle - much loved by economists - that decisions should focus only on future costs and benefits, leaving aside regrets about the past. In my experience, the bygones principle is much easier to apply to public policy than to one's private life. 

I will also resist the temptation to conclude that people who are allowing regrets to interfere with their enjoyment of life should learn cognitive reappraisal skills. It would be easy to draw upon my own personal experience to suggest ways people might be able to acquire such skills, but at this stage I can't cite reliable studies testing what works and what doesn't work.


alloporus said...

Hi Winton,

Regrets... but, then again, too few to mention. Such a great line.

Is there not an important distinction between regret and mistakes. Many of the emotions people feel may well be their inability to admit their mistake rather than genuine regret.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Alloporus
I think inability to admit a mistake would be reflected in unhappiness (negative affect) but not regret. I can't claim expertise, but the stuff I have read suggests to me that people who are in denial would have to feel regret before they could begin to adjust by viewing the mistake as a learning experience or character forming experience or whatever.