Why We Can't Shake Life's 'Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda' Moments

Sep 11, 2017
Originally published on September 26, 2017 3:23 pm

Everyone has regrets. You probably have a few of them. By some estimates, regret is the most common negative emotion that we talk about, and the second-most common emotion mentioned in our daily lives.

Amy Summerville is a professor of psychology who runs the Regret Lab at Miami University in Ohio. She says a big part of why we struggle with regret has to do with the idea of rumination.

"Rumination is having thoughts spring unwanted to mind and we're chewing them over without actually getting anything new out of them, they're just repeatedly, intrusively, becoming part of our mental landscape. What we've found is that people who have ruminative regret, tend to be the people who are experiencing the most negative outcomes."

But Summerville says that while some people experience regret negatively, it's actually one of the more hopeful emotions.

In this episode of Hidden Brain, we hear regrets from our listeners, talk about different kinds of regret, and explore why we keep coming back to these feelings over the years.

Read More:

"Repetitive Regret, Depression, and Anxiety: Findings from a Nationally Representative Survey," Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology: Vol. 28, No. 6, pp. 671-688.

"The Regret Elements Scale: Distinguishing the affective and cognitive components of regret," Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 11, No. 3, May 2016, pp. 275-286

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, by Barry Schwartz

"When less is more: Counterfactual thinking and satisfaction among Olympic medalists," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 603-610.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Rhaina Cohen, Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Parth Shah, Renee Klahr, and Gabriela Saldivia. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Whether or not you believe in them, you probably have ghosts that haunt you - not something sinister, but something that you just can't get rid of. These ghosts are relentless, and they will make you rehash details from your past over and over again.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi there, Shankar and friends.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hello, Shankar.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I was calling about...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Old Blue Eyes sang it - regrets, I've had a few. So I won't list all of them.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: My boyfriend of a year and I ended our relationship.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's just looking back and thinking that I could have done better, and I didn't.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: All these things keep popping into my head of - small things - maybe something I should have said differently or something I should have done differently in a particular conversation or on a particular event.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: It makes me cringe with regret and shame.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I had an affair. Everyone knows it. It's not a secret, but it's a regret.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: My great regret is leaving Woodstock on Saturday morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I was an evangelical Christian at the time. And I remember my friends asking me if I thought they were going to Hell. And I told them that I thought they would go to Hell if they did not become Christian.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And it's something that's bothered me for the last 10 years.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I am experiencing regrets on sometimes a minute-by-minute basis.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And it is the biggest regret of my life, honestly.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: That's it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I hope you have a great rest of your day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Bye.

VEDANTAM: Today on HIDDEN BRAIN, we're going to talk about regrets.

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VEDANTAM: Amy Summerville is a psychology professor at Miami University of Ohio. She runs the Regret Lab, where she studies how people think about the choices they made and the choices they wish they'd made. Amy, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

AMY SUMMERVILLE: Hi, it's great to talk to you.

VEDANTAM: You know, I was fascinated when I heard that you run a regret lab. And I was fascinated because I was wondering what prompts someone to spend so much time studying regret. What drew you to the subject?

SUMMERVILLE: I don't know that I have a particular deep back story about how I got regret. I actually was just generally interested in social psychology. And one of the things that then drew me to regret from that is the fact that regret is among our most common emotions. By some estimates, it's the second most common emotion mentioned in daily life and the most common negative emotion that we mention.

And so this is really a pervasive part of how people experience the world around them. And as I learned more, I really started to realize that regret is actually a very hopeful emotion. It's something that is helping us learn from our mistakes and do better in the future. So it's actually, I think, a really positive thing to get to study.

VEDANTAM: Amy, I'd like to structure this conversation around a couple of stories of regret. We actually reached out to listeners of HIDDEN BRAIN some time ago, and they sent in stories about some of the things they regret in life. One came from Tom Bonsaint (ph) of Arlington, Va. Here's the tape.

TOM BONSAINT: I regret not taking the lead in a school play when I was in ninth grade. I was in a 9 through 12 school, and I was surprised to receive the lead as a freshman. It was somewhat of a big deal considering that freshman typically don't get those sort of roles. And rather than accept the fact that the director felt like I would be a good choice for the role, I listened to people who said that I probably couldn't handle it and therefore decided to turn the role down.

Later on in life, I realized that when people present me with an opportunity like that, if they have the confidence in me being able to be successful, they're likely not putting me in that place to fail. And so since then, I feel like I've gotten a new confidence. And so when faced with a - similar situations in the current time, I've been much more likely to put my hand up and say yes.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering how common this is. Are people really good at taking what happened in the past and learning from it? What spells the difference between people who actually are behaving like Tom - taking a bad experience and saying I'm actually going to use it - and people who just sort of stay stuck in what that bad experience was and think about it over and over again?

SUMMERVILLE: So I think the thing that really characterizes it is less about necessarily what kind of person you are but rather the way that you're experiencing these thoughts. So there's something called rumination, which actually comes literally from bovine digestion - the idea of how cows vomit back up things, chew them over, swallow them back down and so on and so forth. And in terms of our thoughts, it's actually this idea of the same kind of process - that rumination is having thoughts sort of spring unwanted to mind.

And we're chewing them over without actually getting anything new out of them. They're just repeatedly, intrusively becoming sort of part of our mental landscape. And what we found is that people who have ruminative regrets - so that they're both having this regret, but also having it be something that's intrusive and repeated - tend to be people who are also experiencing the most negative outcomes, so are more likely to have clinical depression symptoms, anxiety symptoms, things like that.

VEDANTAM: There are some regrets you can learn from, like Tom's story about trying out for the school play. But other regrets feel harder to overcome. I asked Amy Summerville about this, and I played her the story from Catherine Wigginton-Green (ph), a listener from Washington, D.C.

CATHERINE WIGGINTON-GREEN: My main regret, what popped into my mind when I heard this on the podcast, was regretting not stopping and seeing my estranged father. He's been estranged from our family for quite a while, and I had not seen him or spoken with him in a very long time - his choice. And I was driving along Rock Creek Parkway with my boyfriend at the time, who is now my husband. And as we were driving up Rock Creek Parkway, I looked to my right and saw him and the woman he married walking arm in arm.

And I saw him, and I told my husband to pull over immediately without thinking. And when we stopped the car, I started to unbuckle my seat belt. And then I stopped and paused for a moment and realized I had no idea what I was going to do or what I was going to say. So I chickened out and buckled my seat belt back and told my husband to keep driving. And then I burst into tears. And I realized that that was probably the last time I was going to see him, and that was my only chance to talk to him again. So I still regret that.

VEDANTAM: There's something really poignant about that story, Amy, because in this case, it doesn't sound as if the regret has the potential for learning. She says that she feels that the door was closed in terms of her ability to reconnect with her father. And she comes back to this memory over and over again and just remembers it as an opportunity that was lost.

SUMMERVILLE: Yeah, certainly, in terms of the specific incidents that we regret, they do seem to be most likely things where we had this opportunity in the moment, but it's not something that we can go back and fix - because obviously, if we could just magically turn back and fix something, then most people would do that rather than continue to regret it. What I might say is that I would imagine that one of the reasons that this does rankle for this woman is that it's about something that's important to her. It's about her family and that perhaps this is something that she can carry forward in terms of how she handles other relationships going forward.

VEDANTAM: So I've heard people say that there are anecdotal reports that the things that people really regret are the things that they didn't do, rather than the things that they did do. Is that just anecdotal? Is that not actually true, that people regret acts of omission more than acts of commission?

SUMMERVILLE: I would say there's some evidence for that. So one of the more famous studies on this thought about this in terms of something that happens over time. And what those researchers argued is that we regret things we did a lot more in the moment. So if you say something really stupid in a job interview, you're going to walk out and have that hand-to-the-forehead feeling of, oh, why did I say that? That was such a terrible thing to have said in that moment. But in the long run, we tend to have things that are kind of incomplete goals stick around in our memory as kind of a mental to-do list, basically. And that - as a result, our inactions wind up getting kind of added to that mental to-do list.

So this may be something where if you ask me, you know, what could you have done instead of going to grad school, I have this whole range of possibilities. I could have been a doctor. I could have been a writer. I could have backpacked around Europe and found my passion. And if you ask me, what are the things that you did yesterday that you could undo - right? - I have a finite set of things I actually did in my life. And so over time, it may be that when we're trying to undo something bad that's happened to us, it's easy to start imagining all of the things we might have done in the past because we have a lot more of those available to us than the things we actually did.

VEDANTAM: There are times when we don't take responsibility for our actions. But at other times, we hold ourselves accountable for things that are outside our control. James Cooper (ph) of Pittsburgh shared one of those stories with us.

JAMES COOPER: My biggest regret is not listening to my father tell me about the mundane things that happened to him during the day and instead just immediately asking for my mom when I called the house. Maybe when I talked to him, I could have picked up on some other signs, too, and could have maybe prevented his suicide.

VEDANTAM: You know, when I heard James' story, Amy, I wondered whether, you know, if he had spoken to his father more, would he have actually picked up on his father's mental health? And even if he had noticed, could he have actually stopped his father from committing suicide? And it seemed to me that, in this case, James might have been taking on more responsibility than was actually warranted. I mean, it's understandable, certainly, at an emotional level. But you've done some research looking at how sometimes, when it comes to regret, we take on more responsibility than we should.

SUMMERVILLE: Yeah, I think I would say exactly that. I think that this is a case of probably imagining that there's more that could have happened differently. And it's certainly the case as well that I think people often tend to focus a lot on their own actions about negative events. And it's probably important to think about the fact that you're just one agent in a much bigger framework, that his father had other friends, hopefully had doctors, had his mother, and that it's not just on James to have recognized the symptoms but that there were lots of other pieces that could have played out differently - not just his own actions but a broader set of things that could have changed.

VEDANTAM: Is there a way for people to look at their regrets and say, this is the kind of regret that is actually useful and productive, and this is the kind of regret that is actually better set aside?

SUMMERVILLE: So yeah, I would say that we know that people tend to generate these what-if thoughts as a way of trying to understand their experiences and as a way of trying to bring control to things that feel uncontrollable. We don't like the idea that bad things happen with no reason and without the ability to predict them. And, in the case of regret, I think it can be that, in James' case for instance, not wanting to think about this tremendous loss as something that wasn't predictable and wasn't controllable, that it's I think very reassuring sometimes to try to come up with an explanation of, there's a way that this could have been prevented. It could have been changed. And it feels less random and less senseless in that way.

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VEDANTAM: You know, I'm fascinated by what you just said because essentially, what you're saying is that the fear or the pain of having a world that seems, you know, without meaning or is unexplainable or unpredictable - that pain of that might actually be greater than the pain of taking on regrets for things that you actually maybe don't have responsibility for and experiencing personal anguish about it. That's a fascinating idea.

SUMMERVILLE: Yeah. There's been research that says one of the ways that people can get a sense of control over their circumstances is by having these thoughts about what might have been. The dark side of that, along with personal regret, is there is also work where things like victim-blaming can actually come out of these thoughts about what might have been. So if you think about a woman who attended a party and drank a drink that had been drugged and then was sexually assaulted - right? - it's very easy to think about that one moment of, she took this drink. And if she had been more careful, then this assault might not have happened to her and that that sort of gives us a sense of control, rather than the much more complicated thing to think about undoing of, well, how could we have prevented this person, who gave her this drink and who committed this crime, from doing it? So yeah, these thoughts about what might have been help give us a causal structure to our world. But sometimes, they're not necessarily the correct or the most useful ways of thinking about causality.

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VEDANTAM: When we come back, a story of regret and karma. This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

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VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam, back with Amy Sommerville. She's a psychologist and head of the Regret Lab at Miami University of Ohio. Amy, let's listen to another story. This one comes from Tonia Stark (ph) of Farmington, N.M. I'm going to play the story in two parts because I think it reveals two different sides of regret.

TONIA STARK: One of my biggest regret comes from something I did in the fifth grade. Twenty or more years ago, I remember making fun of this little girl who was a bit overweight. And me and another girl just teased her relentlessly. And I think about some of the things that I said to her and some of the ways that I treated her, and I just regret how cruel I was as a child. And now that I'm older and I work in a field where I see the effects of what bullying and meanness does to children, I am so full of regret in that.

And if I could ever find her again or talk to her again - because I've moved to three or four different places at this point in my life and have no idea where she is or if it even affected her - I regret the way that I treated her and can't believe that I was so cruel.

VEDANTAM: Amy, I want to talk about the role of guilt in regret. They seem closely tied, these two emotions, but I don't think they're identical. Tom Bonsaint from Arlington, Va., regretted that he didn't get the lead in his school play, but there was no guilt involved. Tonia, on the other hand, feels terrible about what she did. When you hear Tonia's story, are you hearing guilt? Or are you hearing regret?

SUMMERVILLE: So listening to Tonia's story, I would say I hear both guilt and regret. And both regret and guilt are emotions that are based on a form of comparison. So regret, I'm comparing what really happened to some imagined alternative. And some of the time, that's all we feel, right? I just imagine that something could have been better. Guilt involves an additional comparison to what has been called our personal standards, rules and goals. So what are the things that we aspire to, in our behavior? And when we make a comparison that says what we really did falls short of those personal standards, rules or goals for ourselves, then we're likely to feel guilt.

VEDANTAM: I want you to listen to the second part of Tonia's story. She told us that she fully realized what she had done to this other little kid, only when events in her own life took a turn.

SUMMERVILLE: I think karma came and got me 'cause while I was a petite, little kid, as I got older and through some injuries, I became quite overweight myself and heard the comments that were said about me or how I became invisible and, like, people didn't think that my feelings mattered. The heaviest I ever was was 330 pounds. And I have worked hard and had surgery and have lost quite a bit of weight. I'm just about 195 now. But I still see myself and still have the self-confidence of the 330-pound woman. And I know how it feels. And I regret making anyone else ever feel that way.

VEDANTAM: When you listen to Tonia's story, Amy, I'm wondering, do you hear sort of someone saying, I really don't like the way the world has treated me? Or do you hear someone saying, I realize the world has treated me really badly, and that's opened my eyes to the way that I might have treated other people in the past?

SUMMERVILLE: It sounds like, in Tonia's case, she's really developed a different understanding of the world and used that to understand how her behavior may have affected other people, rather than necessarily being particularly focused on feeling that she's been treated badly. And I think that, again, regret is based on this idea that we personally could have done something differently. And so in some ways, it's obviously a self-focused emotion. It's about what we should have done. But I think it can also be a fairly selfless emotion and be about how we relate to the people in the world around us. What responsibility do we have towards our fellow humans?

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SUMMERVILLE: One of the things that I really hear Tonia talking about is, I wish that I could find this person and tell her about how I now regret what I did to her when we were children. And I think one of the things as well that's interesting about this whole episode is that you have listeners calling in to tell the whole world, millions of people who might listen to this podcast, about their very personal, very private regrets.

VEDANTAM: You know, psychologists have talked for a long time about something called the fundamental attribution error, which is how much do we believe actions of either ourselves or others are caused by things that are intrinsic to us, things that are part of who our personalities, who we are, versus things that are shaped by the context, by the situation in which we find ourselves? When someone like Tonia looks back, as an adult, at her behavior as a child, do you think the fundamental attribution error plays a role, in some ways leading us to believe that we are responsible for things that maybe we were not responsible for, that maybe really the context was driving our actions and behavior way back when?

SUMMERVILLE: Yeah, absolutely. Again, I think regret is based on this sense of personal responsibility. And certainly, in Western cultures, there's very much this belief that, you know, individuals are responsible for their own actions. We're responsible for our own destinies. And I think that can lead individuals to think more about how a given actor, including themselves or including another person, played a role, and a lot less attention to the whole context.

So in Tonia's story, I believe she started by talking about how there was another little girl that she was friends with who joined with her in the bullying. And I think it may be easy to ignore the degree to which she was experiencing peer pressure, right? There was probably a social context in which this bullying occurred, which doesn't forgive it or excuse it. But it's not necessarily just about who Tonia is as a person, to have done this, but rather really a much more complicated net of things that were influencing her, as well as who she was at that time.

VEDANTAM: I want to talk about the idea of counterfactuals. A counterfactual, of course, is when we imagine that things could have turned out differently than they actually did. You know, as it turns out, I'm recovering right now from a sports injury. And when I think about how I got hurt, the only thing I'm thinking about is, what could I have done differently to prevent this injury from happening? Now, most of the time, when I play sports, I'm not asking myself, why didn't I get hurt? So what do you think causes us to reach for certain counterfactuals at one point in time, but not for others?

SUMMERVILLE: So we talk about counterfactuals as having two different directions. So things imagining how the world could have been better we call upward counterfactuals. And imagining how the world could have been worse we call downward counterfactuals. And certainly in life, upward counterfactuals seem to predominate. And one of the reasons that we seem to do this is that these upward counterfactuals are helping us learn. So if you think about getting into a car accident, if I say, you know, if only I hadn't been texting, then I might not have had the accident, that's identifying a particular cause of the accident. It was the texting and not my speed or the fact that it was raining or the way that the road was engineered and designed for traffic flow.

And downward counterfactuals seem to serve a different function, which is that they make us feel better about the things that might have happened. And so my collaborator, SoYon Rim, and I have found that when people are focused on things from which they have a little bit of distance, whether that's things that have happened more distantly in time or things that have happened to other people versus to themself, we're able to get into this mindset of thinking about, what are the goals that we have? And what are the ways that we can use this negative event to self-improve?

But for things that feel a little bit closer to us - so again, happening to us personally rather than to somebody else - those things we seem to be often somewhat more focused on feeling better about. And so with the example of your injury, you know, it may be the case that it's helpful to think about how things could have turned out much worse than they did - that, you know, you're back at work. Hopefully, you didn't need a lot of medical intervention or surgery. You know, and those would have been things that would have been much, much worse than walking away with just maybe a sprain or a strain.

VEDANTAM: So I'm reminded of that great study that Tom Gilovich did many years ago at the Barcelona Olympics, where he took photographs of the people who were on the medal stand. And he found, of course, that the silver medalists tend to make these upward counterfactuals. And they tend to look a little less happy because they wish they had won gold, whereas the bronze medalists tend to make downward counterfactuals. They imagine all the other people who didn't win any medals at all and find themselves relieved that they find themselves in the medals podium in the first place. And this is fascinating because how this happens - how we choose to make the upward counterfactual or the downward counterfactual - this is largely happening unconsciously. And yet, this unconscious choice has an enormous effect on whether we feel happy afterwards.

SUMMERVILLE: Yeah, and one of the things that shapes particularly the medal example is, how easy is it to imagine this alternative happening? So often for a silver medalist, it's much, much easier to imagine how close they were to getting gold. Whereas, for a bronze medalist, the thing that's easiest to imagine is, yeah, not being on the medal stand at all because those are things that are actually closer.

Another one of my favorite studies about counterfactuals is that if you think about a grade distribution where the cut off to get an A is to get a 90 percent or above, students who get an 89 in a course wind up being less satisfied than the students who got an 87. Both of them have a B-plus. But the 89's, it's so easy to just imagine, how did you get just that one more point, whereas for the 87's, they tend to feel lucky that they wound up where they are and aren't imagining how they might have gotten the A-minus instead.

VEDANTAM: I understand you got married about a year ago. And you applied some of your own research on regret when it came to choosing a wedding dress.

SUMMERVILLE: I did. So I actually wasn't applying my own research. I applied to work by Sheena Iyengar on the phenomenon of choice overload as well as work by Barry Schwartz and colleagues about the idea of maximizing versus satisficing as strategies for decisions - maximizing being the idea that you want to pick the best of all possible alternatives and satisficing being the idea that you're going to pick something that meets all of your standards but may or may not be the absolute best.

So when I was wedding dress shopping, I went to a couple of stores. I tried on five or 10 dresses at each one. And I found a dress that I absolutely loved and was in my price range. And I realized that what the research told me was I would never be happier than I was at that moment - that if I kept dress shopping, I was going to wind up feeling overwhelmed. You know, I could find a hundred different lace sheaths with a V-neck in ivory, and I would wind up feeling confused about what are the differences between these, and that the very act of trying to get the absolute best would mean that I could never really be sure if I'd done it. Whereas, if I adopted a satisficing strategy, I could be sure I'm in a dress that looks beautiful on me and is in my price range, and I should just buy it and be done. And so that's how I chose my wedding dress.

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VEDANTAM: So for all your kids who think that research has no benefit in people's lives, that's a great example. Amy Summerville is a psychology professor at Miami University of Ohio. She runs the Regret Lab, where she studies when and why people think about what might have been. Amy, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

SUMMERVILLE: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

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VEDANTAM: Our team includes Lucy Perkins, Rhaina Cohen, Jenny Schmidt, Maggie Penman, Parth Shah and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. Our unsung heroes this week are the program directors at NPR member stations around the country. I just spoke to them at a meeting in Washington. Many of them are exploring the possibility of putting HIDDEN BRAIN on the air as a radio show starting in October. If you start to hear HIDDEN BRAIN on the radio, you know you have your local station's program director to thank.

One last thing before we go, we're working on an episode about personality tests. Have you ever taken the True Colors, the Myers-Briggs or the Robin Hood Morality Test? Have you ever used a personality quiz to decide something important, where to work or whom to date? If you were asked to take the test at work, have managers used it to decide something important about your career? We're looking for stories that range from the silly to the serious, and we'd love to hear from you. Please record a voice memo, and send it to HIDDEN BRAIN at npr.org. Or call and leave a message at 661-772-7246. That's 661-77-BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.