What Sorts of Things Do People Regret Most?

a photograph of a patch of cement with the words "live with no regrets" scribbled on it in cursive script
Image by Jason Howie / CC BY

Ahh… regret.

Some people claim they don’t have time for it. “No regrets,” they’ll proclaim proudly.

And yet, even some of these folks, when you get them in a quiet or vulnerable state, they’ll freely admit that there are some things they wished they would have done differently.

Even if they say it quickly and add on something like, “But there’s no going back now. The past is the past.”

And aside from these folks, the ones who publicly have no regrets but nurse private ones — there are plenty of other people who openly regret this or that.

So what sorts of things do people regret the most?

Let’s look into one study that asked that question and found some intriguing answers.

What People Regret the Most

A 2018 study of regret found that, generally speaking, people’s most frequent regrets stemmed from things they didn’t do and wished they had done and not things that they had done that they wished they hadn’t.

This is at odds with the general advice that you’re better “safe than sorry.” Researchers believe this is because we tend to feel the pain of regret for an unwise action (like saying or doing something ill advised) immediately — and therefore are able to take some short-term steps to remedy the situation. Conversely, in a situation where we don’t take an opportunity, we’re more likely to feel the pain of regret much later, long after we can actually do something about it.

And so the regret persists.

Zooming in a bit further, this current study also found that we regret seizing opportunities that would let us become more like our ideal self.

Self-Discrepancy Theory

As I mentioned in a previous post, there’s a framework in psychology called self-discrepancy theory. In it, Higgins proposes that there are three basic domains in our self-concept:

  • Actual Self. How we perceive ourselves to be already .
  • Ideal Self. How we would ideally like to be.
  • Ought Self. How we believe others would like us to be.

Both the Ideal and Ought Selves focus on our future potential, but the key difference is that Ideal Self tends to revolve around what a person admires in others and has been positively rewarded for in the past.

Conversely, the Ought Self tends to arise based on trying to avoid characteristics or behaviors that a person has been criticized for in the past.

And today’s research study tells us that we regret it most when we don’t seize opportunities that let us become more like our ideal self. (Which is something to keep in mind for times when your ideal self and ought self are in conflict.)

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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