I must start out this short piece by stating that I would not describe myself as a self-help guru and that this piece is a deviation from the norm for me. I am, however, fascinated by the study of people, and then looking to apply lessons learned. I find the subjects of deception, persuasion, influence and personal safety truly fascinating.
So, this week the news has been filled with stories of woe for people in public life, nothing really new there, who are likely experiencing huge regret for deceit they perpetrated and actions they took that have now returned to haunt them. Specifically, I am talking about John Edwards and Anthony Weiner (the fact that I select two Democrats should further infuriate some of my critics who suggest I am a right wing propagandist / “nut job”; I am neither. For good measure, therefore, I will add that what they are feeling has likely, or hopefully, been felt by Newt Gingrich, David Vitter, Larry Craig and many others).
I have no doubt that John and Anthony are racked with regret right about now, and really wishing that they had kept their pants zipped and their cameras, unlike their libidos, turned off. It is their public expressions of “regret” (with, of course, no admission of guilt for any criminal wrongdoing) that made me revisit some very interesting research regarding regret, that most human of emotions, that we all suffer from time to time.
Unlike our two Lotharios, most people tend to regret what they have NOT done. Indeed, it was the great poet Greenleaf Whittier who summed it up when he wrote, “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.”
I know, and will readily admit, that at times in my life I have wondered what might have been had I made a different decision or done something different. I am sure there are many immigrants who feel this way from time to time, imagining what might have happened had they stayed in the land of their birth or chosen another destination. It is more often than not that I regret not having done something rather than having done something. The sting of regret, however, is always strong no matter the cause.
My personal experience is backed up by the research of Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University who has spent a great part of his career studying regret. A majority of his work has been studying the responses of people who have been asked to look back over their lives and describe their biggest regrets. The percentage split of those surveyed was approximately 75:25, with the former having regret about things they had NOT done. John and Anthony would likely fall into the latter category (although I wonder if ego would make their overriding regret one of “being caught”).
Why is it, then, that the bulk of our regret is for that which we have not done?
While I am sure there are many answers, the most compelling, for me and for Gilovich, is that it is easy for us to see the negative consequences of the things we have done (for example you married the wrong person and as a result spent years suffering from the poor choice you made or you drank too much last night and now feel like the band of the Welsh Guards is playing their fast-march in your head). However, when it comes to things you did not do, it is much harder to envisage the negative consequences and so the “possible positives” run as wild as your imagination will let them. Hence, we can obsess on all the imagined positives we “missed out” on in our life without the counter-balance, or reality check, of negative consequences.
In the words of Percy Shelley, “We look before and after and pine for what is not”. So how can we prevent this from happening?
British psychologist Richard Wiseman suggests that we can remedy some of our regrets by taking the omitted action now. This could be writing a letter, spending time with the family, or returning to college. Although, I am sure, with some people, the regret may then become one of not having done this earlier. One would hope, though, that is a reduced regret, unless things did not go as planned when the action was taken. Perhaps, though I am overanalyzing the point; so I shall move on.
What about things that can never be? Wiseman suggests thinking of three positive consequences of being in your current situation and three negatives that could have occurred had one taken the path not traveled. One could then reflect on these and put things into perspective. It really does work.
As a side note, for those wondering about whether they should have engaged in some form of infidelity, please reference the two fellows mentioned earlier for likely negative consequences (although the incumbent publicity should be less if you are not a public figure).
As for Messrs. Edwards and Weiner I really have no suggestions on how to deal with the regret they are now feeling, this could be because there is little advice that can be given—although I am sure there is some---or because I think that they richly deserve to feel the way they do right now! In all honesty, I think they have made their beds and deserve to lie in them. I say that without fear of regret!