By the time most people reach middle age, they could probably name a long list of things they regret from their past—the job opening they ignored, the disastrous vacation, the stock they did not buy, or even worse the one they did.

But the most frequent regrets involve romance, according to a new study by Neal J. Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, and Mike Morrison, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This and other findings contradict some of the results of previous, smaller studies, which had ranked education-related regrets in first place.

Whatever the cause of the regret, Roese says that people should not see it as a negative. “Regret is an essential part of the human experience—something everybody has as long as they have life goals,” he says. “Rather than avoid it, it’s better to try to take some insights out of the regret experience.”

“Rather than avoid it, it’s better to try to take some insights out of the regret experience.”

Roese and Morrison undertook the new study in order to analyze a more broad-based population than in prior research, which mainly used college students. The two authors arranged telephone surveys of 207 women and 163 men across the United States, selected by standard random-sampling methods. The respondents were asked to describe, in detail, one significant incident of regret. In addition, the survey group provided information about their gender, age, education, and relationship status. Then their answers were analyzed according to predetermined criteria to gauge the severity of the regret—mild, moderate, severe—and to assign the regret to one of twelve categories—career, community, education, family, finances, friends, health, leisure, parenting, romance, self-improvement, or spirituality.

Relationship Regrets
“The key finding,” Roese says, “was that romance was the number one regret,” cited by 18.1 percent of the respondents. The second choice—family, at 15.9 percent—was also related to personal relationships. “People crave strong, stable social relationships and are unhappy when they lack them,” the authors write. Next came education (13.1 percent), career (12.2 percent), finance (9.9 percent), and parenting (9 percent).

This general pattern was observed across all demographic boundaries—race, age, relationship status, education—except one: gender. Women were more likely to cite romance-related regrets, whereas men’s regrets usually centered on work. (The fact that there were more responses from women than men—coupled with this gender tilt—did not affect the overall totals in the survey, because the calculation was weighted for such demographic imbalances, Roese says.) This male-female dichotomy seems to support clichés such as the assumption that men are the breadwinners, or that women want to get married, but that should not be surprising, Roese says. “Sometimes clichés speak to a truth about our nature or society,” he points out, but he adds that traditional gender roles seem to be changing.

Regrets of Omission
Another key finding had to do with whether people felt more regret about actions they did or did not take. Research by Victoria Medvec, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, had previously established a connection between time and regret: The more time that has passed since an event, the more likely people are to focus on what they failed to do, rather than what they actually did. “Lost opportunities linger in our memory longer,” Roese puts it. That is because people can quickly rationalize their actual actions, even when they went wrong. But for a possible action that was never taken, “there are so many ways in which you can see different things you could have done,” he explains.

He illustrates the concept with a romantic example—asking someone for a date. In remembering an unsuccessful attempt, an unlucky suitor might think, “I asked this person out on a date, she shot me down, it’s done.” But if he never even tried, the suitor might ponder all sorts of scenarios: “What if I had asked her when I saw her in the hallway? What if I had phoned right after we first met? What if I had sent flowers?”

Roese and Morrison’s new study analyzed people’s feelings about unrealized actions by asking respondents questions such as, “Does the regret focus on something you should have done, or something you should not have done?” and “When did the event happen that made you feel regret?” Through their broad sampling, Roese and Morrison found that the time disparity, too, applies to a wide cross-section regardless of race, education level, marital status, and age.

Learning from Regrets
At its best, regret can “direct behavior toward fixing what evoked the regret,” Roese and Morrison write. In fact, they continue, “regret is more intense” precisely when there is a chance to reverse an unhappy decision, which then “serves to motivate the individual toward new corrective behavior.”

However, the possibility of a do-over shrinks with age. Younger respondents like college students obviously have more hope of a second chance. For the broader cross-section in the new study, more people may feel that time is running out.

While that sounds dour, there may be a silver lining to looking back on wistful memories. “At the end of the day, regrets are highly useful emotions that signal to us where in life we need to improve, and motivate us to actually make those improvements,” Roese points out. “We should listen to our regrets rather than pretend that we do not have them.”


Related reading on Kellogg Insight

Learning to Use Regret: Studies in the negative emotions and how to use them

Inspiring Loyalty by Asking, “What If?” Counterfactual thinking strengthens commitments to people and organizations

Understanding the Emotion of Loss: The mental processes behind loss aversion