College of LAS « Illinois


Embrace Your Regrets

Neal Roese

Don't push away your regrets. Harnessing them can make you wiser, says LAS psychology professor Neal Roese.

In an analysis of 15 years of research, including his own, Roese bucks conventional wisdom by showing that regrets are psychologically necessary and can inspire people to action.

Regrets, in the language of psychology, are "the emotional offspring of counterfactuals, which are thoughts of how the past might have been different," Roese says. Counterfactuals allow people to recognize a path they did not take as the better choice so that they can improve their performance in the future. Counterfactuals may also be uplifting when people realize an alternative action could have been worse.

"From counterfactuals comes recognition of possibilities, out of regret comes hope for the future, and the essence of human cognition is a set of interlocking mechanisms designed to identify, understand, and fix the problems, both big and small, that appear constantly along the road of life," says Roese.

Marlon Brando's character in On the Waterfront, for example, is deeply torn and, in turn, motivated by regret over his bowing to mob pressure and deliberately losing a boxing match. "I could have been a contender instead of a bum, which is what I am," dockworker Terry Malloy says. His big regret drives him to work for change.

Regrets, he says, can power the imagination, for better or worse, when people ponder what if something went another way. What if Hitler had won the war? If only I told her that I loved her? What if President Kennedy had lived? If only I had sold my Enron stock earlier.

A series of studies done in the last 15 years, according to Roese, found four main areas in which average Americans place regrets: education, career, intimacy, and parenting. This list is essentially a summary of the biggest traps, pitfalls, and mistakes into which people blunder, according to Roese. "The list therefore offers a cautionary note, signaling which areas of life in which to exercise the greatest care."

In new research, Roese has found that the opportunity for improvement influences regret. When opportunity disappears, brain mechanisms work actively to mitigate regret, but when opportunity persists, regret pushes people toward corrective action. The research explains why education is the number one regret of Americans. "You can always go back to school," he says.

Fall/Winter 2005–06