Regret and old age
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Apr 25, 2012

Regret and old age

By Tim De Chant


We all have things we regret—a failed business opportunity, a late birthday card, a missed bus. Like many emotions, some experts suspect an evolutionary explanation for regret and how our perception of it changes over time. A new study published last week in the journal Science explores the hypothesis that disengagement from regret in old age keeps us happier in our later years.

To test that theory, the researchers asked participants—nearly equally divided among psychologically healthy young people, psychologically healthy older people, and depressed older people—to play a game that induced feelings of a missed opportunity, a sort of proxy for regret. One group was observed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see which parts of the brain activated in response to regret. Another was tested while having their skin conductance and heart-rate measured.

The researchers discovered that depressed older participants and younger participants responded the same to regret. Psychologically healthy older participants were different. In particular, the part of their brain responsible for managing emotional responses—the anterior cingulate—lit up on the fMRI scans. They more successfully detached themselves from the emotion.

Neal Roese, a professor of marketing and an expert on regret, said this new finding supports a conclusion he and a colleague drew in a 2008 review of the literature on regret. Specifically, they wrote, “Older adults tend to have regrets that might be described as ‘neutered,’ in the sense that the affective sting is mitigated.”

The study offers compelling physical evidence, but Roese cautioned that it doesn’t close the book on the relationship between old age and regret. “The research examines very mild regrets,” he said. “Like missing a subway train or spilling a soft drink, these laboratory-induced regrets will dissipate rapidly.”

Roese’s more recent research suggests that older people still experience regret, just on a different scale. “We have found that the life events that people find most regretful do not change much with age. Among both young and old, more regrets focus on romance and family relations, and relatively few focus on finances,” Roese said.

As we age, the number of regrets can add up. Roese recommends an antidote: “The best advice to avoiding life regrets when you are older is simply to go out and do things. Try new hobbies, take new classes, meet new people. As Kellogg professor Vicki Medvec has shown, over time people have more painful regrets about the things they didn’t do, rather than those new things that they did try.”

Photo by Santo Chino.