The Science of Regrets

A young woman holding her hand to her forehead


From facepalm mistakes to unfulfilled dreams, regrets are a part of life. But what makes some regrets more painful than others, and how can we turn our dreams into reality? Researchers and psychologists have a few ideas...


A clear theme emerged from the Hippo Regret Monsters Survey, which received 1 288 respondents in June 2021. The biggest regrets weren't so much around the things they did, but more around the things they haven't (yet) done.


Some 50.2% of respondents said they wish they'd travelled more; 44% said they wish they'd earned a degree or qualification; 53.7% wish they'd learnt to speak another language; 37.9% wish they'd learnt to swim; and 39.3% wish they'd learnt to play a musical instrument.


Notice a recurring theme there? All of those regrets are dreams that could come true. All that's missing is the motivation or a registration for the right online or evening class.


Your three selves: Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda


Those regrets are consistent with recent research from Cornell University in the United States, which built on the concept that a person's sense of self is made up of three elements: the actual self, the ideal self and the ought self.


Your actual self is made up of the attributes you believe you possess. Those can't – and won't – change. (You can wish you were a little bit taller all you like, but there's no sense having any regrets about it.)


Your ideal self covers the attributes you would ideally like to possess (your hopes, goals, aspirations or wishes). These include the hopes and dreams we listed earlier: things that sit perpetually unticked on your to-do list.


Finally, your ought self is the person you feel you should have been based on your duties, obligations and responsibilities. These regrets include things like wishing you'd been a better son or daughter (like 18.1% of our Regrets Survey respondents) or wishing you'd taken better care of your teeth (24.3%).


In the Cornell study, the participants admitted having far more regrets about their ideal self (72%) than their ought self (28%). There are practical implications to this, as Cornell psychologist Tom Gilovich points out. A significant amount of psychological research shows that, rather than waiting for inspiration to strike before you try to achieve your goals, you should just go out and do it. "Don't wait around for inspiration," he says. "Just plunge in. Waiting around for inspiration is an excuse. Inspiration arises from engaging in the activity."


Risks, rewards and regrets


The Cornell study also found that people often fail to achieve their ideal goals because they're worried about how they'll look. Again, our Hippo Regrets Survey showed the same results, with 49.3% of respondents expressing regret about "worrying what others think of me". About the same amount (49.1%) wish they'd taken more risks, and 48.9% regret not following their passion.


"We seek to avoid that which is uncomfortable," says clinical psychologist Daniel Rabinowitz. "We avoid making bad choices, as this would lead to regret. But, sometimes not taking action because we wish to avoid making a bad choice leads us to feel bad in itself. Either of these can be understood as regret, and regret is powerful."


Rabinowitz uses the example of approaching someone you really like, greeting them and giving them your phone number. "We want to avoid the possible pain that would come from the 'no', so we never do it," he says. "The avoidance is more comfortable than the possibility of the hurt. However, years later, at the high school reunion, you discover that he had also had a crush on you, but that he always thought you weren't really that interested. You regret not having built up the courage in the first place."


Cornell's Gilovich agrees. "People are more charitable than we think, and also don't notice us nearly as much as we think," he says. "If that's what's holding you back – the fear of what other people will think and notice – then think a little more about just doing it."


While many Hippo Regrets Survey respondents have short-term (44.5%) and long-term (50%) insurance, there are an awful lot (33.1%) who don't have any insurance. That's a lot of regret waiting to happen. Save money (and avoid those Regret Monsters) by using our insurance quote comparison tool to find the best deals for you.


This article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as financial, legal or medical advice.

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