Fear of Regret Is Holding You Back

Whether we are making decisions about a relationship or about which ballot to cast, we are willing to do a lot to avoid regret. And that can exact a heavy price from us

The Shibuya pedestrian crossing, in Tokyo.
Grant Faint / Getty Images IL

“I wouldn’t forgive myself if…,” Tzipi Livi said, explaining her decision last month to leave political life. To us, at home, that sounded natural. But why did such an experienced and judicious politician make the decision of her life based on the fear of regret?

I believe Livni, because fear of regret is a central element in my own decision-making process, as it is for us all. Try to remember how many times you avoided seriously considering taking a new job, starting a new relationship or opening your own business, largely out of the fear that you would never forgive yourself for making the wrong decision.

In recent years, regret has become a central concept in economic theory and in the study of decision-making. Whereas in the past, the only economic model was that of profit maximization, these days, many economics research papers are based on models where individuals are assumed to minimize regret.

Fear of regret influences decisions in two key areas: money and relationships. A classic example is our tendency to stick with losing investments. If we’ve entered the stock market, bought Bitcoin or invested in real estate and have lost, we will find it very difficult to get out of our failing investment – even if there are very few prospects that it will reap future profits. Almost always, we will prefer to wait. Exiting with a loss is tantamount to paying cash in the currency of regret. It’s an admission of the fact that the investment was mistaken in the first place. Waiting, however, defers the payment of regret to the future, and perhaps by a miracle will also cancel it altogether.

A similar phenomenon occurs when we refrain from giving up a social project or a profession that we’ve embarked upon, even after it has become clear that it’s doomed to failure (after all, we’ve already invested time and effort). Here, too, we will continue to roll with the lost project only in order to ward off temporarily the feeling of regret.

In relationships, the fear of regret is expressed primarily by adhering to the status quo. Hence our difficulty in ending a destructive or meaningless relationship, even when it’s clear that it’s not going to get better. Paradoxically, our inability to forgive ourselves for entering into the relationship locks us into it, sometimes forever. Here, too, there’s a paradox: The same force that imprisons us in a failed relationship also hinders us from forging a new one – for it, too, bears potential for regret.

Survival mechanism

What makes us regretful? Regret is an evolutionary mechanism without which we would probably not have survived as a species. It’s our principal learning mechanism. Without regret, we would not succeed in internalizing the lessons we draw from mistakes we made and would repeat them over and over in the future. Animals, endowed with reflexes and instincts, don’t need a mechanism of regret. Many of the traits that shield them from making mistakes are congenital. In contrast, the decision-making mechanism of human beings is based on a combination of emotion and thought: We internalize experiences better through emotion than through thought or fact processing.

Try to recall the familiar situation in which you run into someone from your distant past, but can’t remember where you know him from. You don’t remember his name, his occupation or whether he was a fellow student or a professional colleague. However, you will be able to remember – with absolute certainty – whether the experience of the encounter with him in the past was positive or negative; whether he was overbearing or pleasant, sociable or introverted. That is primarily emotional information, which is preserved in our brain far longer than information related to dry facts. Regret generates emotional information related to a mistake we made and makes it possible to retain it in our memory and protect ourselves from regret in the future.

Yet, the way we process regret, like the level of pain it causes us, is not uniform and depends on the circumstances. We regret far more leaving the house late if we missed the bus by two minutes, than if we missed it by a quarter of an hour. Similarly, a mistaken decision about an action we took will be more painful than a mistaken decision that involved remaining passively with the status quo, as the former is perceived as a more serious error. For the same reason, a mistaken decision that was also made by many others will be less painful than one we alone made.

The difference in the intensity of the emotion is determined by the question of whether there were extenuating circumstances that might reduce to some degree the self-blame fomented by the mistaken decision. If there are no extenuating circumstances, we will be very harsh in judging ourselves. The more we expect severe self-punishment, the more we will fear regret and look for extenuating circumstances before the fact so as to protect ourselves from regret in the future.

In recent years, studies conducted with the use of MRI scanning during the act of decision-making have made it possible to identify the neural circuits in the brain that are responsible for the sense of regret. My colleague Georgio Coricelli, from the University of Southern California, maintains that by examining brain imaging of people in different situations, he can identify which individuals experienced regret in the course of those situations.

A large part of the brain’s activity takes place in the region of the Hippocampus, which is responsible for the memory. It is now also known that the neural circuits that are created during the experience of regret are very similar to those that are created when we are fearful of regret in the future – meaning that when we fear regret, we are effectively experiencing it in advance.

We can’t, however, always resort to the comfortable status quo. When we need to decide which university to attend, what field to specialize in or what to name a newborn baby – we can’t find refuge in non-choice. In such situations, the fear of regret is liable to place two hurdles in the way of our decision-making. The first is avoidance of making a decision, which sometimes entails a heavy price. The second involves delegating authority to someone else – a parent, a cleric or an admired figure at one’s place of work. Generally we will choose an authoritative person to decide for us, in some cases with flawed information and contradictory interests. Delegating authority in this way allows us, when the need arises, to come up with the ultimate alibi and divert all the blame elsewhere. The more obvious the potential for regret, the greater the tendency to outsource the choice.

Investors and patients

Not long ago, I delivered two lectures, two days apart: one to investment advisers and portfolio managers in Zurich; the other to oncologists here in Israel. At the end of the first talk, I asked the audience what bothers them most in meetings with clients. With surprising consensus, they replied that the problem is the clients’ unwillingness to take part in the decision-making. When a client is asked about the level of risk he’s prepared to assume, he usually replies, “You tell me – you’re the expert.”

I also asked the oncologists whether they encounter difficulty in patients’ decision-making. To my surprise, they offered a uniform but opposite response. They said that the prevailing approach is to inform the patients about the shortcomings and advantages of each possible treatment; once that’s done, the patients feel confident enough to decide by themselves.

A decision about cancer treatment is no less complicated than deciding about an investment asset, but apparently is made more easily. Actually, this is logical. In financial decisions we will know in retrospect whether we were right or wrong; we will always be able to find out whether we made or lost money and what our situation would have been if we’d invested in some other asset. In medical decisions, however, the situation is radically different. If we decided, for example, on chemotherapy instead of surgery, we will never know if we were wrong. Even when it proves ineffective, surgery might have not worked either. For the same reason, we will prefer, in the first case, to have someone else decide for us.

Fear of regret also affects our voting. It typically gives an advantage to incumbent leaders. This means that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enjoys a natural, built-in advantage. That is because voting for Netanyahu means a passive choice to remain with the status quo and voting for Benny Gantz means choosing to depart from it.

But there is also another reason that fear of regret could work in Netanyahu’s favor: Support for a traditional right-wing stance produces less regret than a left-wing stance – not because it is more just or more correct, but because it’s perceived in our brain as the default, as the simple, less sophisticated and more certain choice.

The reason is that right-wing positions focus on the interest of the group (i.e., the nation). Group loyalty is a basic evolutionary trait that is so strongly embedded in our personality that it protects us from potential regret with respect to protecting the group. In contrast, the ideology of the left stresses universal moral sentiments and the rights of out-group members. These are likely to offer less protection against regret. The global support for the right – from Trump to Brexit and migrant hatred in Europe – is wholly due, in my opinion, to the immunity from regret that’s accorded to its supporters. Right-wing backers who afterward feel let down can always console themselves with the thought that “I voted in favor of the right out of loyalty to my nation and country.” Left-wing supporters who are let down will find it far more difficult to extricate themselves from this sort of regret.

Our desperate need to avoid regret exacts a heavy price from us in the decision-making process. The best way to minimize this need is to minimize the risk of the regret itself. In the economic realm, for example, an investment adviser might free us from a large portion of the burden of regret. In other areas, a priori self-commitment not to engage in regret might also be helpful. Regret does not always appear unbidden. Frequently we summon it and then heighten it by analyzing the circumstances of the mistake and collecting information afterward about “what would have happened if.” Formulating a self-contract, even in the form of a short letter entrusted to a close friend, in which we commit to avoid making such analyses, can act as an effective medicine with few side effects.

Eyal Winter is Silverzweig Professor of Economics in the Federmann Center for the Study of Rationality at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.