In research published in the 1990s, psychologists asked people to list their biggest regrets in life and found that they tended to mention things they hadn’t done, rather than things they had. Now, one of the psychologists behind that seminal research – Thomas Gilovich at Cornell University – together with his colleague Shai Davidai at The New School for Social Research – have looked into the content of people’s regrets, as opposed to how they were brought about (by action or inaction). Across six studies, the pair present new evidence, published in Emotion, that our most enduring regrets concern not living up to our ideal selves (i.e. not becoming the person we wanted to be), as opposed to not living according to our “ought selves” (the person we should have been based on our duties and responsibilities).
The researchers surveyed hundreds of participants, including students, but mostly members of the public recruited on Amazon’s survey website. For most of the studies, the researchers started out telling their recruits the difference between regrets concerning the “ideal self” (not achieving goals they had set for themselves, their dreams and ambitions) and “the ought self” (not meeting the norms and rules they had for themselves or fulfilling their obligations to others), before asking them to list, name and categorise their regrets.
Across the different studies, the participants said they experienced regrets concerning their ideal self more often (72 per cent vs. 28 per cent); they mentioned more ideal-self regrets than ought-self regrets when asked to list their regrets in life so far (57 per cent vs. 43 per cent); and when asked to name their single biggest regret in life, participants were more likely to mention a regret about not fulfilling their ideal self (76 per cent vs. 24 per cent mentioning an ought-self regret).
Gilovich and Davidai next tested their belief that a key reason why ideal-self regrets are more enduring is that we are less likely to take practical and psychological action at the time to repair these regrets, compared with ought-self regrets.
For instance, presented with hypothetical ideal-self regrets (such as forsaken dreams or romantic interests not pursued) and hypothetical ought-self regrets (like failing to visit a dying relative or infidelity), participants said a typical person was more likely to take action, psychological and practical, to repair the ought-self regrets, such as by finding a silver lining or doing something to dampen the regret, than to repair ideal-self regrets.
In a follow-up study, participants described actual regrets they had, either ideal-self related or ought-self related, and said what they’d done to cope with them. Those asked to describe ought-self regrets rated them as having been more urgent and said they’d taken more steps to cope, including changing their behaviour, rectifying the situation or undoing it entirely.
Finally, the researchers switched things up and asked 157 more participants to recall a resolved regret or an unresolved regret (“unfinished business”) – they found those asked to write about the former were more likely to describe an ought-self regret, while those asked to write about the latter were more likely to describe an ideal-self regret.
Gilovich and Davidai and are not saying that the only reason that ideal-self regrets are more enduring is because we are less likely to attend to them and resolve them, but they think this is a key factor in why they are generally more bothersome and come more readily to mind. Other possible reasons (not tested in the current research) are that our ideal selves are simply less obtainable than our ought selves, more abstract, and less context dependent, meaning regrets pertaining to them are triggered more often.
“Our work is the first to show that people’s most prominent life regrets more often involve failures to live up to their ideal self than their ought self,” the researchers concluded. And they added the work “… is the first to document the role played by behavioural and psychological coping mechanisms in people’s tendency to regret their failures to live up to their ideal selves.”
The new results are backed up by anecdotal accounts from patients nearing the end of their lives, described in a book by palliative nurse Bronnie Ware in 2013: “When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled,” she wrote. “Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices that they had made, or not made.”
Can we take any practical insights from the latest findings? Gilovich and Davidai urge caution, suggesting that the most advisable way to live will depend on how much weight you place on your ought self vs. your ideal self.
If you place a premium on your ought self, you “would be wise to minimise [your] regrets by thinking twice before forging ahead [and seizing the moment]” they suggest. On the other hand, “if one is an adventurous soul guided by her ideal self, she might indeed end up happier by seizing the day and not looking back. As we have shown in this research, a person focused on her ideal self is more likely to lose sleep over her ‘wouldas’ and ‘couldas’ than her ‘shouldas’.”