Regrets, we’ve really had a few

Report suggests we’re better at avoiding self-blame than we think

“Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.” When Frank Sinatra crooned those lyrics in his song “My Way,” he probably didn’t know that having few regrets is more like “Our Way.”

Research has shown that people often expect to feel more regret when they “nearly succeed” (miss an airplane by a minute) than when they “clearly fail” (miss a flight by an hour) because they believe they will blame themselves more in the former than the latter instance. But new research has uncovered a disparity between a person’s expectation of regret and actual regret. In fact, studies show that people are remarkably good at avoiding self-blame and may be better at avoiding regret than they realize.

These findings will be published in the May issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society. The authors of the report are Daniel T. Gilbert, Harvard University; Carey Morewedge, Harvard University; Jane L. Risen, Cornell University; and Timothy D. Wilson, University of Virginia.

The authors measured people’s expectations of regret and self-blame and compared them with their actual experiences. In one study, students who lost a contest expected to feel more regret if they “nearly succeeded” than if they “clearly lost.” In fact, students reported feeling equally little regret under these two circumstances.

In other studies, subway riders who missed their trains expected to feel more regret and self-blame if they “nearly succeeded” in catching their trains than if they “clearly failed” to catch their trains, but said they actually felt equally little regret in both circumstances. The studies revealed that riders expected to blame themselves when they “nearly succeeded,” but they actually blamed external circumstances, saying for example “They didn’t post the subway maps correctly.” (If only it had been done “My Way.”)

For more information, e-mail Gilbert at d_t_gilbert@hotmail.com, or for a complete copy of this article go to http://www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/ps/Gilbert.pdf.

Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public’s interest.

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