The Biggest Regret of All
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Marketing Feb 2, 2012

The Biggest Regret of All

Life begets regrets, but one looms larger than the others

Based on the research of

Mike Morrison

Neal J. Roese

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.

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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.”

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).

Women were more like­ly to cite romance-relat­ed regrets, where­as men’s regrets usu­al­ly cen­tered on work. 

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

Featured Faculty

Neal J. Roese

John L. and Helen Kellogg Professor of Marketing, and Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences

About the Writer

Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning author and freelance writer specializing in health care, finance, and corporate social responsibility.

About the Research

Morrison, Mike and Neal Roese. 2011. “Regrets of the Typical American: Findings from a Nationally Representative Sample.” Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2: 576-583.

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