Where in life do you feel you have the MOST opportunity? That is, where in life do you have the greatest freedom to do what you want or the most effective skills that enable you to modify circumstances for the better? That is, where in life are your choices constrained, decided often by other people, or simply tough to put into effect? Where in life do you feel that things are more fixed, unchangeable, and hard to modify according to your own desires? Opportunity was manipulated on a within-subjects basis and counterbalanced. Half the participants first nominated a high opportunity life domain, completed the ratings listed in relation to that life domain, then nominated a low opportunity life domain, and then completed the same ratings but this time with regard to the low opportunity life domain.
The other half of participants completed a questionnaire in which low opportunity preceded high opportunity. The dependent measures were as follows. Participants completed a manipulation check rating of opportunity: Participants were then instructed to think of a regret from this domain. The main dependent measure centered on perceived intensity of this regret: Last, mainly for exploratory purposes, participants rated the overall importance of the life domain: Two kinds of results are presented. First, by looking at the effect of high versus low opportunity on regret intensity, we reach direct evidence for our conceptual explanation as to where in life regrets persist.
The rating of opportunity confirmed the success of the manipulation. Participants rated the high opportunity life domains as being both higher in opportunity and easier to change than low opportunity domains: Importance and opportunity ratings appeared to be relatively unconfounded: The correlation between opportunity and importance ratings was.
Moreover, an examination of potential multicolinearity in a regression equation predicting regret intensity from opportunity and importance produced variance inflation factor values of 1. We next isolated the 6 most frequently nominated domains for both the high and low opportunity conditions. We selected 6 as opposed to the full 12 because those 6 domains that were least frequently cited were mentioned by only a handful of people, resulting in frequencies of close to zero see Studies 1 and 2a for similar observations.
We next tabulated the number of people citing each of the domains for both high and low opportunity conditions; these rankings appear in Table 4.
The mean frequency for the top 6 domains in each condition was nearly identical for high Study 2b frequencies reflect the percentage of individuals who selected a particular life domain as being high versus low in opportunity. Study 2a frequencies reflect number of individuals who categorized their vivid regret as falling within that life domain. The key question however centers on whether those life domains that participants selected as high vs.
In other words, does the manipulation of opportunity in the present study explain, at least in part, the selection of life domains in the previous study? This was indeed the case. The mean frequency in the high opportunity condition was nearly identical to the frequency derived from Study 2a By contrast, the mean frequency in the low opportunity condition much exceeded the frequency derived from Study 2a Another way of capturing this effect is using Spearman rank order correlations computed across the full set of 12 domains.
Overall, this pattern indicates that the life domains in which individuals describe their biggest regrets correspond to those domains in which individuals see the greatest opportunity. Moreover, these findings represent a direct connection between the test of opportunity effects in Study 2b and the ranking of Study 2a. To recap, Study Set 2 was designed to be a conceptual bridge, linking research on regret rankings to laboratory manipulations of perceived opportunity.
This bridge raises an important theoretical issue centering on the timing of measurement, specifically, whether regret is assessed immediately after an outcome versus recalled much later. In Study 2b, we used a retrospective self-report method in which participants recalled long-lasting regrets. The opportunity effect revealed by this method could however reflect either or both of the following two distinct mechanisms: Outcome-evoked effects correspond to the psychological effects dissonance reduction or preparation for new action that follow immediately from the outcome.
Post hoc framing effects may come later, as when recalling the regretted failure a year later.
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At this later point in time, framing the recall of this past outcome as high or low in opportunity may also alter the regret experience: The same outcome framed as high rather than low in opportunity might produce greater regret reports. The findings of Study 2b could be interpreted in terms of either or both mechanisms.
We conducted three experiments to find out. Studies 3a and 3b used the same within-subjects design and procedures, differing only in the focal life domains within which regrets were assessed: These pairs were selected based on a pretest of 24 subareas within the domains of education, romance, and friendship so as to be equivalent in the number and strength of regrets, importance, and impact on other areas of life. For each of these life domains, two versions of a persuasive paragraph were prepared that argued that past psychology research indicates that most college students have either high or low opportunity to modify events falling within that particular life domain.
After reading each paragraph, participants listed three ways that they had observed high versus low opportunity in that domain of their own lives.
What We Regret Most … and Why
A manipulation check consisting of two items assessing perceived opportunity emphasized in the paragraphs confirmed the success of this manipulation in both studies: Participants then rated the extent of their own regrets within each life domain using two ratings frequency and intensity that were then combined. Although this framing manipulation was clearly successful, it produced no consistent effect on the regret ratings. In Study 3b, there was a marginally significant effect in the opposite direction i. Study 3c involved a different framing manipulation based on accessibility experiences e.
Although it is always difficult to draw strong conclusions from null results, the present findings are informative given that the manipulations were shown to be effective and that repeated independent tests were conducted with substantial statistical power. It seems then that previously published laboratory demonstrations of outcome-evoked opportunity effects constitute the principal mechanism by which opportunity breeds regret.
These reports have appeared in journals spanning social, personality, developmental, and gender psychology and until now have not been summarized comprehensively. In meta-analyzing these findings we found that overall, Americans regret choices made in the context of education. Career, romance, and parenting were ranked two, three, and four, respectively. Rounding out the top six were regrets centering on the self and on leisure. That education is the number one regret finds agreement with national surveys conducted by Gallup in , , and Erskine, Interesting though this ranking may be on its own, the key question is why this ranking appears as opposed to some other.
More generally, what factor can account for regret intensity across widely divergent life domains? In the introduction, we summarized five lines of research that together reveal an opportunity principle, which is that greater opportunity breeds regret. This opportunity principle rests on two mechanisms. After summarizing these two bodies of work regret rankings on one hand, opportunity principle demonstrations on the other , we next endeavored to make an empirical connection between the two previously separate literatures, regret rankings versus opportunity effects.
To erect this conceptual bridge, we tried to bring a little of each into our laboratory experiments. We first measured regrets among college students Study 2a , then mapped this new regret ranking onto a manipulation of focus on high versus low opportunity life domains Study 2b.
We discovered that high opportunity directs attention to more intense regrets than low opportunity. We then showed that those life domains that participants identified in Study 2b as being high rather than low in opportunity were precisely those domains that were spontaneously identified in Study 2a as vividly regretful. This research thus demonstrated the link between perceived opportunity and regret intensity while at the same time connecting this relation directly to a content-based ranking of regret.
Accordingly, education is the number one regret at least in part because in contemporary society, new and further education of one sort or another is available to nearly all individuals. Moreover, education is widely recognized to be a gateway to numerous other valued consequences, from higher income to more challenging career to wider diversity of social contacts. Education is therefore a means to achieving several important ends, and any of these ends gone awry might have been avoided with more education. For reasons such as this, we do not expect the same ranking of regrets to appear in other cultures, although we would expect that perceived opportunity will underlie whatever ranking is uncovered cf.
Indeed, striking differences in cultures may be predicted on the basis of social-structural constraints on individual behavior. In contemporary American society, individuals enjoy great freedom of choice when it comes to education and career, but in caste-based societies, such as those in the recent past in India and Great Britain, education and career were constrained at birth. It seems extremely plausible that individuals in caste-based societies experience far fewer life regrets centering on education and career than contemporary Americans. By the same token, contemporary Americans have enormous freedom in dating, marriage, and divorce, yet it was not always this way.
Might regrets centering on romance be more common today than they were a century ago, when people married young, divorced rarely, and saw few opportunities for alternative romantic partners?
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The meta-analysis of previous content analyses of life regrets was intriguing, yet a few limitations invite new follow-up research. Even so, that education represents the number one life regret of Americans can be fairly confidently concluded given the confirmation of this finding in representative surveys conducted in earlier decades Erskine, The exact ranking of the remainder of this list however might be verified with a survey using a sample representative of the nation as a whole.
Second, for several of the studies summarized by meta-analysis, the life domain categories were presented to participants before they rated their regrets; these people then decided whether they had experienced a specific regret corresponding to each category. Such an approach may exaggerate frequencies by cuing recall, missing the more interesting question of what it is that people report when not prompted with specific life domains.
It may also heighten demand characteristics in that it may suggest to participants that they cite regrets that may make them look good or that the experimenter wants to hear. Some studies used the somewhat better approach of soliciting salient regrets first and only later categorizing these into life domains typically done by independent coders. In our Study 2a, we used this latter approach but required participants themselves to categorize their own regrets into life domains, thus to some extent reducing the interpretive ambiguity that might affect independent coders.
In characterizing the regret ranking by pointing to the role of opportunity, it seems clear that opportunity is but one of several determinants of regret intensity. Our Study 2b showed that opportunity is related to importance in that the most painful regrets are to be found in those life domains that are most important to people. Our analysis of the opportunity principle may be summarized concisely in terms of three distinct stages at which opportunity effects may or may not occur with regard to regret experiences.
These three stages are action, outcome, and recall see Figure 2. At the action stage, the individual engages in goal-directed behaviors prior to a focal outcome, such as studying before an exam. It is at this stage that research from the cognitive dissonance literature may be brought to bear. The next stage is the outcome stage, at which the goal is either successfully or unsuccessfully achieved. Almost by definition, regret does not occur for successes, but a failure following from freely chosen actions will evoke regret, which embodies thoughts of alternative actions that might have brought about success.
It is at this outcome stage that the opportunity principle operates. As shown in laboratory experiments in which an actual experience is accompanied by beliefs in either low or high opportunities to implement new corrective action e. But importantly, regret dissonance is likely to appear at this outcome stage only to the extent that there was a belief in free choice during the action stage. At this recall stage, regret intensity might reflect recollections of the opportunity perceived during the outcome stage, but our research rules out the possibility that framing of the past as high or low in opportunity during this recall stage itself alters the regret experience.
Rather, recall of past regret experiences reflects the opportunity principle as primarily an outcome-evoked process: Consideration of future opportunity in the immediate aftermath of the outcome moderates regret intensity and accordingly whether this regret lingers over longer periods of time. 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. The only apparent difference is that the former paper reports data for the female participant subset included in the latter paper. Sex differences are almost completely absent from the literature of counterfactual thinking and regret, a null finding that extends to the studies reviewed here.
Women and men are remarkably similar in the aspects of life that they regret most, hence the oversampling poses little concern regarding the generalizability of this meta-analysis. The modal number of examples generated in each domain was multiplied by. Schwarz personal communication, November 5, ; see also Schwarz, These values were rounded to the more extreme whole number so that a value of 2. National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. Author manuscript; available in PMC May Roese and Amy Summerville.
Author information Copyright and License information Disclaimer. The publisher's final edited version of this article is available at Pers Soc Psychol Bull. See other articles in PMC that cite the published article.
Abstract Which domains in life produce the greatest potential for regret, and what features of those life domains explain why? Open in a separate window. The Opportunity Principle Opportunity breeds regret. Coding One challenge of this analysis was that the life domain categories used in these studies differed. Results With total number of regrets tabulated for each category for each data set, we then computed proportions of total regrets for each category, weighted these by sample size, then computed the weighted within-category average proportion.
Method Participants were 34 19 women, 14 men undergraduate students who completed the study in exchange for credit in an introductory social psychology course at the University of Illinois. Rather, the following paragraph-length description explained the regret information that we sought: Results All participants recorded one regret.
Regret | Definition of Regret by Merriam-Webster
Method Participants were 70 women, 49 men, 2 unspecified students who completed the study in exchange for credit in an introductory social psychology course at the University of Illinois. The instructions in the former condition read, Where in life do you feel you have the MOST opportunity? Results Two kinds of results are presented. Limitations and Implications The meta-analysis of previous content analyses of life regrets was intriguing, yet a few limitations invite new follow-up research.
A Theoretical Synthesis of the Opportunity Principle Our analysis of the opportunity principle may be summarized concisely in terms of three distinct stages at which opportunity effects may or may not occur with regard to regret experiences. Coda Opportunity breeds regret, and so regret lingers where opportunity existed. Regret and dissonance reduction as a function of postdecision salience of dissonant information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Regret in decision making. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Cooper J, Fazio R. A new look at dissonance theory. Advances in experimental social psychology. The domains of life satisfaction: An attempt to order chaos. If you had your life to live over again: What would you do differently? International Journal of Aging and Human Development. Hopes, fears, and regrets.
Festinger L, Walster E. Post-decision regret and decision reversal. Conflict, decision, and dissonance.
Stanford University Press; Clinical validation of the Quality of Life Inventory. A measure of life satisfaction for use in treatment planning and outcome assessment. The affective forecasting of changeable outcomes. Looking forward to looking backward: The misprediction of regret. The temporal pattern to the experience of regret. The experience of regret: What, when, and why. Commission, omission, and dissonance reduction: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Regrets of action and inaction across cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. International Journal of Human Development. When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Regret appraisals, age, and subjective well-being. Journal of Research in Personality. Regrets and priorities at three stages of life. Landman J, Manis JD. What might have been: Counter-factual thought concerning personal decisions. I was afraid and needed to go home to my kids. I forever fear she was in fear. The truth is that a we all try to make the best decisions possible using the information available at the time, and b we all mess up.
The saddest stories were from people who had been abused — and even in characters, they were terrible. It was one area in which the abused had control, and they regretted not exercising it. Took the Savile situation for me to realise I would be believed. They all had the same message.
Maybe these survivors passing on this single regret with such unity and clarity will encourage others to exercise that one vital control. I was humbled by their honesty. Education was high up the list — there were many more regrets to do with school and college than I would have expected. Left me disadvantaged all my life. I wanted to get a job.
I righted my regret. I was a wimp in my 20s. As well as the many tweets like this: Career-choice regrets made me realise a pattern was developing … regret seems most often to be about fear. Fear of getting it wrong, leading to an unfulfilled life, followed by self-blame for being fearful. And then, perhaps less surprising, there was love: In a way most complex, there were a lot of tweets about anxiety, and what intrigued me was the self-blame. It was encouraging that right alongside the people who regretted a life lived in fear were others who had made a change — now regretting the time it had taken to find their solution for this exact problem: Moved to France — still scary but food and life is good!
And there were some beautiful stories. At last, here was one tiny area I could be useful … I retweeted her words and asked Twitter if they could help.