More on Regret

Metafilter’s dgaicun shares this meta-analysis on regret, “What we regret most… and why.” An excerpt:

Education is the number one life regret, accounting for 32.2% of all reported regrets (SD = 1.89). This is a strikingly consistent finding, confirmed by a wide margin in all but two data sets (those exceptions being Landman et al., 1995, and Data Set 3 ofLandman & Manis, 1992).

Educational regrets were things like “should have stayed in school, should have studied harder, should have gotten another degree.” In other words, people wish they’d worked harder. After education, people regret their careers, romance, parenting, self, and leisure. In contrast, few people have regrets related to finance, family, health, friends, spirituality, or community: “the remaining six regrets were so low in frequency as to be effectively inconsequential.”

In short, we probably shouldn’t ignore Ware’s advice, all we need to do is reverse it:

  1. Conform to expectations.
  2. Work and study harder.
  3. Bottle up your feelings.
  4. Don’t stay in touch with old friends.
  5. Don’t worry so much about happiness.

dgaicun comments:

One hypocrisy to always keep in mind about social class, is that people earn social status brownie points by A) earning lots of money and moving up in high status jobs, and B) simultaneously paying lots of lip service to the idea that money and good jobs are superficial and don’t matter much. People do this all the time; watch for it.

Sounds a lot like the satisficers from my post on the middle class. The study’s authors draw this conclusion:

Opportunity breeds regret, and so regret lingers where opportunity existed. Rankings of life regrets, interesting in and of themselves, point to this deeper theoretical principle. Life regrets are a reflection of where in life people see opportunity, that is, where they see the most tangible prospects for change, growth, and renewal.

In other words: regrets are a luxury, not a truth-tracking emotion. Enjoy them as the mixture of nostalgia and tenderness that they are, but don’t succumb to the fantasy that they necessarily track better choices.

6 thoughts on “More on Regret”

  1. Regrets are not truth-tracking regarding opportunity? Are luxuries necessarily non-truth-tracking? It seems that truth-tracking procedures for the existence of extra-solar planets are quite a luxury, and are nonetheless truth-tracking. Who is succumbing to the fantasy that regrets are Cartesian intuitions; i.e. "…necessarily track better choices."?

    1. Regrets aren't truth tracking because they're the product of choices; having multiple opportunities begets regret. You don't eliminate regrets by making different choices: you eliminate regret by not having the opportunity to choose at all.

      I'm not saying all luxuries are somehow hypocritical or wrong, though I do suspect that a good account of luxury will entail recognizing that there was some necessity that would have been better-served. There are no supererogatory choices to indulge in luxuries, and the Lear Jet and the Mega-Yacht really are irrationally wasteful; desires for such signalling goods are inefficient, indulging those desires is probably immoral. (The same thing goes for fine clothes or consumer electronics, of course, though to a lesser degree, and I suspect that signalling competitions in the bourgeoisie are more likely to be efficient and instrumental or utility-enhancing.)

  2. Aren't regrets the product of the presence of opportunities, rather than the choices made? That is, do they arise from 'objective' circumstances rather than 'subjective' assessment? Is nothing that is the product of choices truth-tracking?

    I'm not sure what your concerns about luxury goods have to do with regret-as-luxury, as everyone may have regrets.

    1. I think we're on the same page in your first set of questions: yes, regrets are the product of choices, yes they arise from "objective" cirumstances (the fact of choosing), and certainly choices try to be truth-tracking in the sense of tracking "the right thing to do" or "the best choice for the chooser."

      The question, though, is simply this: is the regret more reliable than the choice? I believe we should trust our choices more, basically for justificatory internalism reasons (we decided on the basis on the information then available) and a related set of concerns insofar as inter-temporal judgments might better be modeled on inter-subjective judgments.

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