How to Avoid Regret

This is a moderately long article (2000 words). If you’re short on time, you can get straight to the point by going to the summary at the bottom of the page.

The Disaster Paradox

The human cons itself into feeling good about things. This should make us happy – our minds are on our side! They are constantly trying to turn negatives into positives. This is the work of what Daniel Gilbert calls the psychological immune system. The comparison with the physical immune system is a good one: our psychological immune system steps in when something really bad happens and corrects it without us having to do anything consciously.

Sometimes, though, when we’re infected with a minor virus, the immune system doesn’t kick in and we get a cold. Equally, sometimes something minor goes wrong in our life, the psychological immune system doesn’t kick in and we get really annoyed by it. This happens all the time. You might get made redundant: a complete disaster, but you start to rationalise it. It’s an opportunity to develop yourself and you never really liked the company anyway. But if you miss the bus on the way home you get into a stinking fury and it ruins your whole day.

This leads to an interesting paradox. Because mildly bad experiences don’t threaten our psychological health it is sometimes hard to see them positively compared to really awful experiences.

An experiment was done with volunteers who were told that they were joining an exclusive, elite club, but that they had to undergo an initiation which would be an electric shock. There were two sets of volunteers, one set who had a small electric shock and one set who had a massive shock before joining. Interestingly, the people who received the bigger shock preferred the club compared to the people who only had to suffer a small shock. Their psychological immune systems had kicked in at the higher level and had turned it into a positive.

That’s why it’s the small things that really get to us – you can forgive a cheating partner, but not the fact they always leave dirty dishes lying around.

This fact means that bystanders to an insult are often more hurt by it than the actual victims. The bystanders get mildly miffed and don’t trigger the psychological defences, whereas the victim gets badly hurt and looks on the positive side. However, we are not aware of this paradox: we believe that if we were insulted we would feel terrible and that the bystander wouldn’t be too bothered.

Our Defence: Rationalisation

The premise of the good psychological immune system is that it changes the facts to suit your mental state. This is the process of rationalisation. Before you got fired you thought you wanted that job – you did want that job: your brain had rationalised all the bad aspects of the job, leaving you with a feeling of satisfaction. The job was earning you good money and wasn’t too much of a pain in the ass. But as soon as you got fired you realised how awful it was; your brain rationalised in the opposite direction to match your new circumstances and to keep you happy.

How can this be? Simply that, when the psychological immune system is faced with hard evidence opposing the required mental state, it demands more rigorous standards and we criticise that evidence furiously. Forty percent of recently laid-off workers don’t find work again for at least six months, but that figure doesn’t apply to you because you’ve got excellent experience and great references. And when faced with favourable evidence we accept it with very little consideration. Four percent of recently laid-off workers find work that pays better than their old job; you’re easily in that four percent. Our brain agrees to believe what our eyes show us and in return the eyes look for what our brain wants to find. We tackle the bad event with rationalisation, re-framing it in our favour.

But beware: research shows that deliberate attempts delude ourselves will fail. We must feel as if we have come upon the positive feeling honestly, even if subconsciously we are still deluding ourselves. Asking a friend, ‘That job never suited me, did it?’ is an example of a loaded question wrapped up as an honest inquiry. It won’t work unless you’re really gullible.

These rationalisations or explanations are the psychological immune system’s filing mechanism. Explanation closes the file and we cease to respond emotionally to an event that has had closure. Think about the great thrillers in film or literature: there are always plenty of cliff-hangers. You are desperate for the mystery to be solved and, when it is, you get a great dose of pleasure and forget about it, you move onto the next chapter. But if the mystery is never resolved, you keep on thinking about it long after the book’s finished. With explanation we can file the event away. Even fake explanations enable us to move on (as long as we believe in them).

Conversely, the unexplained dominates our mind. If you find out that you have a secret admirer, but you don’t know who, it keeps you buzzing for days – weeks, even! The unexplained is rare and unusual, it captures our attention and we keep thinking about it. This is great if the unexplained is a happy event, like your secret admirer; not so great if the event is a disaster, like your redundancy. If you can explain an event, you can move on from it. However, even in happy circumstances, most people will choose to avoid uncertainty; we are a cautious people and think we’ll  prefer guaranteed outcomes.

What Makes Us Feel Regret?

We feel more regret when:

  • we suffer because of bad luck rather than through human error;
  • we are rejected unanimously by a broad range of people, rather than one judge;
  • we learn of alternatives to our choice than when we don’t;
  • when our bad choices are unusual rather than conventional;
  • when we fail by a narrow margin than a wide margin;
  • when we accept bad advice, rather than reject good advice;
  • when we don’t act, than when we do (even wrongly).

We feel more regret in these situations because the psychological immune system is less able to rationalise away these occurrences. Bad luck is a poor excuse; we prefer to have someone to blame. But then again, we can’t blame everyone. If you have a choice of a hundred spaghetti sauces and the one you choose is not good then you only have yourself to blame because you could have gone for a different one. If you are doing something that no one else is doing and you fail, you only have yourself to blame. If you come within a millisecond of breaking the county 100m sprint record, then you’ll obsess over all the little things you could have done to get that last fraction of a second. If you accept bad advice then you can only blame yourself for being so stupid to have taken it. Rejecting good advice is much easier to rationalise: maybe it wouldn’t have worked out so well for you, it was still the right decision in the circumstances and so on.

The interesting thing about the last point, however, is that we expect to regret incorrect decisions that we act on more than incorrect decisions where we didn’t act – even though the opposite is true. Daniel Gilbert gives an example with stock shares.

You have shares in Company A and consider moving them to Company B, but don’t. Company A’s shares then lose £1,000 in comparison to B’s. At the same time you have shares in Company C and decide to switch them to Company D, whereupon they instantly lose £1,000 in value compared to Company C.

Which scenario do you instantly feel worse about? The one where you make the switch, right? The one where you took action. But we know that inaction, in the long run, will make you feel more regret than action.

We find it harder to generate a positive view of inaction because we can’t think of all the lessons we learnt from the experience, whereas with action you can always say: ‘Well at least now I know!’ Although our psychological immune system can rationalise an excess of courage better than an excess of cowardice, we will always err on the side of inaction for fear of looking like an idiot.

We are also more likely to look for the positive in things that we’re stuck with. Tests on people on election day show that they prefer their chosen candidate on the way out of the polling booth, compared to on the way in. Siblings, employees and spouses should provide numerous other examples from your own life. You demand higher standards from someone on a first date compared to someone you’ve already said ‘I do’ to. We feel happier when we get a test result saying that we have a potentially deadly genetic defect OR if it says that we don’t – but we feel terrible if the tests are inconclusive. We can’t feel happy until the fate is irrevocably ours.

Summary: How Can I Avoid Regret?

Our psychological immune system will kick in at a certain level and particularly when we:

  • take action;
  • are in pain;
  • are trapped and have no choice.

Conversely, the psychological immune system is not good at seeing the good side of:

  • inaction;
  • mildly negative events;
  • avoidable events.

But, when given a choice, we do not choose action, serious pain and irreversible commitment over inaction, mildly painful things and freedom. So we are actively choosing the things that will leave us less satisfied in the long run.

However, knowledge is power, so I have a few of suggestions of how to avoid regret. Do not be surprised if you find them hard because they run counter to every instinct you have.

  • Don’t think too much, just act – even if you think inaction is wiser.
  • Consequences from actions, bad or good, can and will be justified.
  • But equally, keep most people on your side – your psychological immune system can’t ignore overwhelming evidence!
  • If in doubt, follow conventions – they are more easily justified.
  • Don’t be afraid of failing spectacularly – you won’t feel that bad.
  • When you fail by a hair’s breadth use it as motivation, try not to think what might have been.
  • Don’t fear the catastrophe.
  • Don’t fear pain – in fact, seek out real hardship.
  • Don’t give yourself a choice, commit.
  • Start shopping in smaller shops (or write a specific shopping list before hand).
  • Become a determinist (‘There was nothing I could do…’).
  • Look for the good (or the diabolically disastrous) in the small things that go wrong.
  • Writing about bad events can make you feel better about them. However, logically enough, writing about good events makes you feel worse about them!

I’m sure you can already spot problems with this list (slavery was a convention once and presumably Hitler could have done without some of the consequences of his actions) so remember to do things that you can justify to yourself and, if in doubt, write down this justification in plain, logical language so that later, when you are kicking yourself for investing in paper pickaxes, you can remember what on earth possessed you. At the very least this justification will make it look more like you had no choice anyway so you can just sigh and get on with no regrets.


This article draws heavily on the work of Daniel Gilbert, specifically his book Stumbling On Happiness.
This was originally published on the website, How to be Human. I hope it finds a new audience here.

What do you think?