David Amerland
Regret The Sunday Read

Regret

So many things in your life
That you’re bound to regret
Why didn't I do that?
Why didn't I do this?

The Meat Loaf lyrics to the song innocuously titled A Kiss is a Terrible Thing to Waste:

are devastating in their accuracy and potentially unbinding in their effect. Life is made up of choices and decisions and Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken resonates particularly with anyone who has experienced a sense of regret.

Regret is an interesting emotion. For a start we appear to value it above all other negative emotions. And then, paradoxically, it can generate feelings of bad decisions having been made for things we did not do as well as for things we actually did. What generates regret, apparently, is not so much the action or inaction but the outcome of either which is less than positive. So regret, really, is a reaction to our own decision-making process.

Neal Roese from the Kellogg School of Marketing thinks that regret can be a powerful behavioral modifier that can actually make us happy and prevent us from making bad decisions in the future. He may be onto something seeing how psychopaths also experience regret but fail to learn from it which means their behavior remains unmodified.

Studies show that regret is not just counterfactual but also sensitive to social contexts which suggests that the elements that trigger it are multifactorial and diverse and highly dependent on circumstances and individuals. When even rats appear to regret their mistakes it is surprising perhaps how our more evolved brains are actually inclined to overlook regret and justify bad decisions, provided of course, we have sufficient cultural support for them.

Yet regret, introspectively applied, has a way of helping us move on.

The part of the brain that generates regret is the same one involved in anticipating it which suggests that regret can be a deciding factor in specific aspects of human economic behavior.

Despite its negative aspect regret can be an adaptive emotion that allows our brain to understand how to move on as we age. Its effects on the brain do appear to be lasting which implies that decision-making is affected long-term which, makes regret as one of the cognitive adaptations we have developed to help us navigate the decision-making landscape that lies ahead of us.

Kathryn Schulz suggests in her TED Talk that we can regret a great many things in our life but maybe regret is not one of them: 

Interestingly regret is a self-blaming exercise – which is maybe why psychopaths are not quite as good at it as the rest of us, which is designed to help us become better versions of our selves as we move towards the future.

Like most aids we have in our executive decision making it is subject to our ability to understand what makes us tick and then become willing agents of our own remaking into something better. In this evolution of decision-making and, by association, thought and attitude we have no other avenue available to us but to work at training our brain, which is the blueprint laid out in The Sniper Mind.

All the roads to self-improvement, it seems, are paved with hard work. They require effort. They demand self-knowledge. It sucks if we feel that “making it” somehow means reaching a state where we abrogate responsibility for our actions, choices, and decisions and we become somehow free in the sense that we don’t have to be accountable any more.

Regret, ultimately, is about accountability to ourselves. So it is about responsibility in who we are and who we choose to become. Everything then becomes a choice. Our every action and inaction. The things we think and the things we choose to not think about. Typically we can run from pretty much anything but not ourselves.

I hope you made the right kind of choices and have no regrets which means that you’re already coffee cup in hand, busy deciding which sugary treat to tackle next as you go down the rabbit holes. May your supply of donuts, cookies, croissants and chocolate cake last forever. Have an awesome Sunday wherever you are.

© 2019 David Amerland. All rights reserved