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Ouch! Regret Hurts

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

I bit my tongue yesterday. It was not one of those unfortunate nicks that catches the tip and leaves me rubbing it ruefully against my inner cheek for the rest of the day, but a full, bare-toothed chomp. My mouth filled quickly with blood and, trembling, I had to spit the half-chewed remains of my croissant into a serviette. My mastication and articulation had slipped out of sync and the agony silenced me mid-sentenced. My mother’s rule about not speaking with my mouth full had been painfully vindicated. It was unfair, though. She only cautioned about the danger of hurting the sensibilities of polite company. Had she told me that I might inflict self-injury severe enough to bring me to tears, I might have listened. ‘Is everything alright?’ My breakfast guest looked concerned.

‘Uh huh.’ I mumbled a lie through a closed mouth.

But what could I say? That I had bitten my own tongue? That I had used the full force of my jaw and the sharpest teeth in my head to slice into my own tender flesh? Certainly not. Biting one’s tongue must be one of the stupidest things one can do to oneself and I did not want to appear stupid. So I ended the breakfast my croissant uneaten and my coffee undrunk. Yet, the worst part was not the pain (which hours later lingered on), but the regret.

The thing about regret is that it is greater when an alternative history is salient. For instance, getting caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella is not pleasant, but I cannot really regret it if I do not own an umbrella; there is no alternative history. If I owned an umbrella but had forgotten it at home, the regret would be greater. If I had picked up the umbrella before leaving home, but decided at the last minute that rain was unlikely and that I couldn’t be bothered to carry it around all day, the regret would be enormous. The damage is the same in each case – I am drenched – but my regret is determined by the ease with which an alternative history comes to mind. This is why it hurts more to miss a train by 30 seconds than by 30 minutes. The outcome is the same, but the alternative history of catching the train is more salient when the miss is narrow. And what alternative history could be more salient than not biting my tongue?

Although people do not articulate the preconditions for regret in this way, they are very much aware of how it works. Not only do we avoid courses of action that could result in our future regret, we are doubly wary of it when salient alternative courses of action are present. Hence, in situations of risk, people often stick to the most conventional option, the one they have always chosen, the default, or the one that everyone else has chosen because it is more salient. We do this not because we believe it to be the best option, but rather because we recognise that the pursuit of a less salient option would expose us to more regret if it were to go wrong. We literally prefer to fail 'conventionally’ if it spares any post-decisional regret.

This analysis implies that we could significantly improve the quality of our decision making if we could somehow leave aside any thought about our future regret. Sadly, however, these thoughts about alternative histories seem to be an essential part of our humanity. Human beings are the only creatures able to imagine the thoughts and feelings of our possible future selves. Therefore, we are alone in our ability to experience a tinge of regret for something that only might take place in the future. This ability was certainly useful in our evolutionary history – we are the survivors, after all – so we are probably stuck with it. The human preference for default options, status-quos, and ‘going with the crowd’, is not set to disappear any time soon.

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