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Regrets Are Mostly Imagined

We don’t know how things would have turned out.

Key points

  • Regret is the emotion we may feel when a choice we made didn’t result in a good outcome.
  • Research shows that we commonly overestimate how opportunities not taken would actually have panned out.
  • Excessive regret arises from misuse of the imagination and can lead to depression.
 Zulmaury Saavedra/Unsplash
Source: Zulmaury Saavedra/Unsplash

After Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s glorious release from captivity in Iran, an Observer journalist reflected on an interview she had held with Nazanin’s husband, Richard, 18 months into Nazanin’s imprisonment.

Despite the news he had just received that his wife might face an added 16 years in prison, he said, when asked how he was coping, “I really don’t dwell on what I’ve lost. I find it easier to think about the things we will do when they are back. I hold on to that.”1

I expect such positive use of his imagination contributed in no small way to his ability to keep strong and hopeful over many more years of setbacks and struggle. Regret is a useful emotion only if we learn from it.

It is common to misuse our imaginations about whatever we have lost or failed to take advantage of, resulting in self-castigation and, often, descent into depression. Researchers have recently demonstrated, however, that we have a tendency to overestimate how opportunities not taken would have turned out.

In one of a series of experiments, they asked 800 U.S. residents recruited online to look at the blurred-out faces of nine people of the sex they were attracted to and pick out the two that they thought would be the most attractive and then make a final choice between them. Half were then shown both faces unblurred, while the other half saw unblurred only the face of the person they had chosen.

Now, here is the thing: Those who were disappointed by the face they had chosen and whose other choice remained blurred were more likely to overestimate the attractiveness of that second, still-unseen person and to regret their choice.

Another experiment involved people acting as interviewers, choosing two people from several candidates for a mythical job, basing their judgments only on scores supposedly assigned after an interview and test—which, they were told, did not necessarily reflect the candidates’ true abilities. Again, when shown evidence that their chosen candidate’s true abilities were less than convincing, interviewers expressed more regret for not choosing the other one if they didn’t know that second person’s true ability.2

So regret is commonly triggered by biased, unfounded beliefs, coloured by our imaginations.

I recently worked with a man who, 20 years previously, had been—or so he recalled—on course for a stellar career in a particular industry, marked out early as chief executive material. Unfortunately, his personal life was not so positive, which he blotted out by heavy use of marijuana, which in turn led to colourful psychotic episodes and eventual dismissal.

Amazingly, his ability was such that he kept managing to get other good jobs in his field, before he sabotaged those in the same way. When I met him, he had long lost his house and most of his savings and was living in a small, dreary rented flat. He had also lost most of his friends, as he would talk of nothing other than how he had ruined his life.

Even though, yet again, he was on the shortlist for a good job, he could think only of how he would now be at the top of the career ladder if he had acted differently 20 years ago. He found it hard to distract himself because he related everything back to his miserable condition—thus watching a David Attenborough documentary, for instance, would remind him of how successful David Attenborough has been. Going for a walk meant seeing smiling couples, reminding him that he had messed up his own earlier chances of a lasting relationship.

His regret was clearly devastatingly self-destructive and it took a while to break through it. I started to talk through with him what the rose-coloured spectacles might have been hiding—maybe, as he climbed the greasy pole, he would have found business practices that went against his own ethics; or maybe, believing himself all-powerful, he would have become a less than pleasant person; maybe he would have been stabbed in the back by older colleagues jealous of someone successful so young, and found himself out on his ear anyway.

I congratulated him on his enormous resilience and evident talent and on his decision, finally, to stop taking any drugs. It was when I reminded him that he had as many working years ahead of him as he had wasted ones behind him that a chink of a different future finally opened up to him.

He did get the senior job he had applied for (albeit not at the salary he once might have commanded). I encouraged him to get involved with local activities where he could meet new people, and ensure that, when he went for a walk and saw couples smiling together, he imagined this in the future for himself, too.

What the brain focuses on is what it is more likely to bring about, which is why regret is never useful to dwell on.


1 Ferguson, D (2022). Richard Ratcliffe’s long years of waiting for sunlight – and Nazanin. Observer, 3 March.

2 Feiler, D and Müller-Trede, J (2022). The one that got away: overestimation of forgone alternatives as a hidden source of regret. Psychological Science, doi: 10.1177/09567976211032657

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