Woody Allen once said that his one regret in life was that he was not someone else. Regret can shape people and change their paths, especially in American society, where everything seems completely possible—although changing into someone else is a bit harder, of course. Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, studies the outcomes of emotions and is an expert on decision-making. He has turned his attention to discovering what we regret most, why we regret the things we do—and how regret can actually be a positive force in future behavior.

Roese’s work shows that regret is a powerful force in human life. Far from being negative, regret is actually recognized by human brains as a positive influence on future behavior. Regret’s important messages can be applied in everything from marketing to decision-making for the future.

Finding Benefit in Emotion
Roese started by examining the so-called negative emotions: anger, anxiety, boredom, disappointment, fear, guilt, jealousy, and sadness. He wanted to find out whether people believed the negative emotions were beneficial, damaging, or somewhere in between. His team found that regret, like several other negative emotions, was viewed both favorably and unfavorably. People rated regret more favorably than unfavorably. Only jealousy was considered unambiguously negative.

“Regret is like a flag going up,” says Roese, explaining that regret is useful to kicking people into action and helping change the future. Human brains shut down regret when there’s nothing that can be done, he says. When there’s opportunity for us to change things—say, following an argument with a friend—regret kicks in and makes people change their course—say, talking the situation over with the friend—to help make things better.

In a further study, Roese found that people ascribed great worth to regret. Students responded that regret helped them make future decisions more than other negative emotions. Regret scored the highest of all negative emotions in the five functions of emotion—to help in making sense of the world, avoid future behaviors, gain insight, achieve social harmony, and improve approach.

This finding surprised Roese, because previous studies had assumed that people are averse to regret. Roese says his discovery that people value regret in both an absolute and relative sense opens up possibilities for future endeavors. “I guess the biggest surprise is that people have a recognition of how regret has both good and bad sides. As psychologists, we think people perceive negative emotions as bad experiences, but the truth is that people appreciate the power of negative emotions as well as positive ones.” Negative emotions—and especially regret—can help put past events into context and to change future behavior.

Roots of Regret
In another paper Roese examined eleven other studies regarding regret, in which people ranked the parts of life they regret the most. Education was the biggest inducer of regret, followed by career, romance, parenting, the self, and leisure. The rankings turned out to be remarkably consistent across studies of people in different age groups and locations. Roese thought education might consistently top the list because it is a part of life with endless opportunity, and opportunity breeds regret. “Partly, education connects a person to all other things in life—it connects to money, personal fulfillment, meeting people, igniting romance, and making friends,” Roese says. “Moreover, we have a chance throughout our lives to learn more, and to develop new skills for work and pleasure.” Feelings of dissatisfaction are strongest where the chances for corrective reaction are the most straightforward.

Culture also plays a role in what Americans regret. “These findings are very much linked to the American idea of possibility and also the way that people from all walks of life can get ahead,” says Roese. Paradoxically, when people are controlled more by structure of society—in places where arranged marriage is common, for example—people have fewer regrets because they have less input. “In part, Americans are more miserable as a culture because we have the opportunities to fix things. So many choices can be a burden. American culture is built on lots of choices—things to buy, places to go, people to date. That brings both a pleasure and a dark side in that it gives more opportunity to feel regret.”

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Figure 1: What we regret most, a meta-analysis

Roese then took his research into the lab to try to find out if the so-called opportunity principle held up in new studies. In one study Roese and his team asked undergraduates to record a single, vivid regret—without actually using the word “regret.” “We wanted to let subjects speak for themselves. While other research shows that people have very clear preconceptions of what regret is, what psychologists call regret may not match up with what people imagine it is.”

In a second study Roese tested the role of opportunity by directing focus onto areas of high opportunity (like education) or low opportunity (like family) in life—and found that opportunity and importance were highly correlated.


Putting Regret to Work
Roese is finding ways to put his research to work in marketing messages. He is considering how to structure marketing messages and advertising to leverage the idea of regret and make consumers value a company or product more highly. One successful example of this is the advertising campaign for V8, which says, “I could have had a V8.” Roese says this creates a fleeting moment of regret—creating a momentary emotional itch that a consumer might want to scratch next time he or she strolls down a grocery aisle.

Another way to make regret work for people is to help them create narratives based on turning points—harnessing regret to make people act better in the future. The idea is to act now to avoid feeling regret in the future. The deeper message in all of this work, says Roese, is that all emotions are good for us—even the negative ones. “Even if feeling the emotion sucks at the time, it does have side benefits.”

Further readings:

Kray, Laura J., Linda G. George, Katie A. Liljenquist, Adam D. Galinsky, Philip E. Tetlock, and Neal J. Roese. (2010). From what might have been to what must have been: Counterfactual thinking creates meaning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 106-118. [Published paper]

Roese, Neal J. (2005). If only. How to turn regret into opportunity . New York: Broadway Books.[Book]