How many times have you thought about starting a company, taking a year off to write a novel, or leaving a loveless relationship but ended up doing nothing about it? Fear of regret—which is a powerful incentive to maintain the status quo in our lives—may be to blame.
As research in behavioral science has indicated, regret can have a substantial impact on our lives. Money and relationships are perhaps the two issues that consume most of our emotional and mental resources, and regret affects our behavior in both domains.
When it comes to money, a famous bias linked to regret is the “disposition effect.” This describes how investors hold on tight to losing assets. Whether it be a mutual fund, a specific stock, or even the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, we are extremely reluctant to sell an asset at a loss. Many would rather hang on to it as it keeps dropping in value, hoping it will pick up again—regardless of whether that is likely.
A driving force behind this behavior is the fear of regret. One may be unwilling to sell the asset at a loss because doing so means having to admit to making a mistake in buying it. Holding on to it allows us to avoid regret for the time being.
A more general example is the “sunk cost” bias. This describes the fact that we often start new projects with high expectations of them doing well. While putting enormous effort into a project, we may gradually notice that it’s going nowhere. We can still opt out, but instead, we find ourselves hanging on to it, exerting more and more effort in spite of the likelihood that it will bring nothing in return.
Here, we experience regret if we terminate a project before it materializes. So we may fall into the trap of irrationally hanging on to it in order to avoid regret temporarily. One can imagine this bias at play in romantic relationships. For example, many people hang on to relationships that they well know are going nowhere. Ending such a relationship ultimately forces someone to admit a failure and experience regret.
The same fear may also keep one away from a new relationship. Fearing regret makes the status quo remarkably attractive, even if it doesn’t make us happy in the long term.
The Science of Regret
But why are we so easily manipulated? Regret is a highly important emotion that evolution likely equipped us with to facilitate learning. Without regret, we can hardly learn from our mistakes. We need this painful stimulus to avoid repeating the same mistake again and again.
But the way our brain processes regret and determines the level of pain we experience is counterintuitive: Missing a bus by one minute triggers more regret than missing it by 10 (regardless of how long we expect to wait for the next bus). Similarly, a decision to depart from the status quo that later proves to be misguided triggers more regret than making an unwise decision to maintain the status quo.
Recent brain imaging studies have helped identify the neural circuits that are involved when we feel regret. They show that substantial activity is taking place in the hippocampus, which we know is responsible for memory. They also show that experiencing regret and being scared of feeling regret involve very similar neural circuits.
Not all of us are affected identically by regret. People who suffer from high degrees of neuroticism, for example, are more likely to feel regret than others. This means that the tendency to feel regret is linked with the experience of anger, fear, and loneliness. It is also closely related to “loss aversion,” so people who are more prone to feel regret may be less likely to take risks.
So how can we tackle our fear of regret to get where we want in life? A starting point is realizing how profoundly regret affects us. If you find yourself repeatedly failing to achieve your life goals, you may want to ask yourself whether fear of regret is to blame. While making a change always involves risk, there can also be risk in doing nothing.
This post is adopted from a piece that I wrote for “The Conversation.”