We’ve all asked “what if” questions about our life: What if I had majored in art instead of business? What if I had let my best friend know I liked her as more than a friend? What if I had taken the job offer in Colorado? Sometimes contemplating the imagined possibilities of these alternative histories fills us with sharp pangs of regret.
My guest today says that’s not necessarily a bad thing. His name is Neal Roese and he’s a professor of psychology and marketing and the author of If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity. Neal and I begin our conversation by unpacking how asking “what if” is to engage in something called “counterfactual thinking,” and how you can create a downward counterfactual, in which you imagine how a decision could have turned out worse, or an upward counterfactual, where you imagine how a decision could have turned out better. Neal then explains why living without regret isn’t actually that healthy, and why even though regret is an unpleasant feeling, it can be an important spur towards greater improvement, action, and agency. We then do get into the circumstances in which regret can become a negative force, before turning to what Neal’s research says are the most common regrets people have in life. At the end of our conversation, we pivot to talking about how imagining how your life could have turned out worse, can make you feel happier.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What is regret? What is counterfactual thinking?
- How often are people doing counterfactual thinking
- Why are regrets necessary to improving ourselves?
- When does regret turn in to the negative?
- How do you re-work those negative thoughts?
- The negative impacts of doing counter-factual thinking on behalf of other people
- What do people tend to regret the most? And why is this such a powerful question?
- Common relationship regrets
- Common work and career regrets
- Why aren’t money regrets as powerful as other categories?
- The counterfactual thinking of FOMO
- What we can learn from It’s a Wonderful Life
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Where Is the Grass Greener? The Economics of Happiness
- Figuring Out If You Should Change Careers
- Good Shame; Bad Shame
- How to Increase Your Personal Agency
- Taking Control of Your Life
- Finding an Existential Second Wind
- Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life
- AoM series on resiliency
- AoM series on male depression
- How to Hardwire Your Happiness
- Love Is All You Need
- The 3 Biggest Financial Regrets of College Students
- How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do
- A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling
- 4 Questions to Crush the Fear of Missing Out
- The Joy of Missing Out
- The George Bailey Technique
- The Man in the High Castle
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Listen ad-free on Stitcher Premium; get a free month when you use code “manliness” at checkout.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. We’ve all asked “what if” questions about our life: What if I had majored in art instead of business, what if I had let my best friend know I liked her as more than a friend or what if I had taken that job offer in Colorado? Sometimes, contemplating the imagined possibilities of these alternative histories fills us with sharp pangs of regret.
My guest today says that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. His name is Neal Roese and he’s a professor of psychology and marketing and the author of If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity. Neal and I begin our conversation by unpacking how asking “what if” is to engage in something called counterfactual thinking and how you can create downward counterfactuals, in which you imagine how a decision could have turned out worse, or an upward counterfactual, where you imagine how a decision could have turned out better. Neal then explains why living without regret isn’t actually that healthy and why even though regret is an unpleasant feeling, it can be an important spur towards greater improvement, action and agency. We then do get into the circumstances in which regret become a negative force, before turning to what Neal’s research says are the most common regrets people have in life. At the end of our conversation, we pivot to talking about how imagining how your life could’ve turned out worse, can actually make you feel happier. After the shows over, check out our show notes at aom.is/regret. Neal joins us now via clearcast.io.
Neal Roese, welcome to the show.
Neal Roese: Hello, it’s good to be here.
Brett McKay: So you are a professor of psychology and you’re a professor of psychology who has specialized in the psychology of regret, and you wrote a book about your research in this topic called If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity. I’m curious, how did you end up specializing in regret? I’ve never met a regret psychologist.
Neal Roese: Yeah, that’s a funny question. It’s certainly not the case that I woke up one day and decided I’d become an expert on regret. It’s like many things in life, you stumble your way into it, but the deeper point, I think, is that I’ve always been a person who likes to reflect on things to look at my own life. You might even say I’m a compulsive navel-gazer. And I remember when I was a small child, probably the first time I confronted a deep philosophical question was, “What would have happened if my parents had never met? What if my mother had met some other person and had a child, would that child still be me or would I be half me or some other person?” And as I went down this rabbit hole and imagined, “Well, what if my father had met somebody else and had a child, would that still be me?” It awakened a kind of appreciation for the way in which human beings can think through different parts of their life and dismantle, take apart and then rebuild parts of their life, and then ask questions about “what if” and “if only”.
And when I was a younger student, I thought that this was all just the realm of philosophy or just armchair speculation. And when I became a graduate student studying psychology in a serious way, I was delighted to discover that there were actually other people who are studying this in a more precise and systematic way using measurement and actually asking people systematically about their thoughts of what might have been, and I was lucky enough to get my research going in the early part of arising effort to look at these kinds of thought processes. And so you might say I got in on the ground floor but I’m certainly not the only researcher who’s been asking these sorts of questions, but my main research area is not so much regret as it is a deeper capability of human beings to construct counterfactual insights. And so counterfactual thinking is where I got my start, and counterfactual means literally contrary to the fact. It’s the way in which our brains come up with alternatives to what we know to be true and yet we know they’re false, and yet we play all around with them and sometimes use the insights for other purposes. So once again, I didn’t really start out thinking about being a regret researcher, I kind of stumbled into it, but my main research interest early on was counterfactual thinking.
Brett McKay: Well, so yeah, regret is a type of counterfactual thinking. What are some other types of counterfactual thinking that we take part in on a regular basis?
Neal Roese: Well, regret to me is a great example of the emotional consequence or the emotional result of a counterfactual thought and it’s a particular kind of counterfactual thought that focuses on your own decisions. “Okay, so I decided this morning to have coffee but I could have had tea.” So I could focus on that decision but also, as I construct an alternative, I am emphasizing how things could have been better as opposed to how things could have been worse or how things might have stayed exactly the same. So if I focus on how things could have been better, I really am imagining a better state of affairs, something that I perhaps yearn for or desire, or dream about, and regrets are really all about how we could have made decisions for ourselves to have made a better current situation for ourselves. So whether I had coffee or tea at breakfast this morning is rather unimportant. Maybe if I had tea, I’d be a little bit perkier right now. That’s hard to say, but let’s talk about a bigger kind of work in the road that you might have, what your choice of career might be.
And so, when I was younger, I did briefly entertained the idea of being a dentist, and so I can imagine what would my life now be like if I were a dentist. And you might say, “Well, it could be better,” in the sense that maybe I’d be making more money but it’s also worse in the sense that while I’d have my hands in people’s mouths all day, I’m not sure if that’s quite my cup of tea. But if I can focus on mainly the better side of things, if I can think about the positives, then that’s what we call an upward counterfactual, we’re thinking about how things might have been better, but other times we might imagine how things could have been worse, and that’s what psychologists call a downward counterfactual.
So downward counterfactual is really all about, let’s say if I made this or that decision, things could have been a whole lot worse. So, perhaps if I had not gone to university, I might have had a different sort of job, maybe it would have been a job that would be less fulfilling for me, and I can imagine that, that alternative state of affairs, and I think about what my life would be like now if I hadn’t gone to university and I can see, well maybe it wouldn’t have been as pleasant, maybe I would have had greater frustrations and challenges. So psychologists really see the upward versus downward counterfactual distinction as a key demarcation point, a key point of separation between our thought processes. Because it really speaks to what we value, what we see as good or bad in the world and our brains are very, very quick to categorize the events that we see around us as either good or bad. And in the same way, we’re very quick to see how alternatives to the past might have been good or bad.
So that’s a fundamental distinction. And overall, I think you might say that, people have a tendency to focus more on upward than downward, counterfactuals, that is people are more often thinking about how the past might have been better than how it might have been worse, which I think is a reflection of just how people tend to think about, what are their goals? What are their dreams? What are their aspirations? And so, counterfactual thoughts tend to mirror the things that we most want out of life.
Brett McKay: So just to re-cap here, downward counterfactual, we think that something could have turned out worse, which makes us feel better. And an upward counterfactual where we think something could have turned out better, which makes us feel worse. And regret is that negative feeling we have as a result of an upward counterfactual. So now, as I was reading your book and thinking about this dynamic, I was thinking, you know what? I’m doing counterfactual thinking all the time. I’m constantly doing it. Not even thinking about it sometimes. Have you found in your research that we do quite a bit of counterfactual thinking throughout the day?
Neal Roese: Yes, yes, there’s actually some research that I worked on with one of my former students now a professor, her name is Amy Summerville. And one of the things that we tried to do is to get a sense of, how often counterfactual thoughts or comparisons, especially those ones that focus on our own actions, how often they happen in every day life? And we used a very unique research method to tap into this. We basically used electronic devices kind of like… All of us carry smartphones around with us, and we have basically computers in our pocket that allow us to communicate with others, obviously, we’re all on social media right now. This research was done more than 10 years ago, so we had more primitive devices to use, but the idea is the same. People are carrying around electronic devices that randomly ping them during the day. So it’s a random ping and then our research participants would take out the device and answer a few questions. And what’s great about this method is that enables us to sample thoughts in a kind of more representative way. So it’s a kind of a random sampling of the thoughts that happened to you spontaneously as you live your life. And so this is not a technique that we invented by any means, lots of researchers, have used it, but it’s a very powerful technique for understanding the frequency with which we have certain kinds of thoughts.
So using that kind of research approach, we found that counterfactual thoughts are pretty frequent. I can’t give you an exact number of how many per day, but the average person is certainly having explicitly or consciously realized thoughts, dozens of times of day. And what’s interesting about comparing, let’s say, our consciously experienced thoughts versus unconsciously held thoughts as we know that there are unconscious counterfactuals that are kind of like, swimming in the background, giving us guidance to the things we do. So every action we take potentially has a set of alternatives that were considered prior to that, not consciously, but there was an automatic process of setting up, what are the different options available to us? And then after the fact, there’s a reconsideration or a re-evaluation.
So I would say dozens of times a day, each of us might have this or that counterfactual thought and it might be about something extremely minor, like I mentioned to you earlier. Should I have had tea instead of coffee? Or you just realized, Oh man, I forgot to bring a book with me that I wanted to show a friend, and you think I should have brought the book. It’s any time really that you realize that you have not met a goal or not accomplish something that you meant to accomplish, almost spontaneously a counterfactual thought swims into focus, that is all about what you could have done to have met that goal or to realize that particular objective. So these thoughts are happening all the time, sometimes without us even realizing it.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s dig into the counterfactual thinking of regret, ’cause I think it’s an emotion that alot of and I think everyone feels on a regular basis, and the typical sort of fulk advice out there about regret is like live a life without any regrets. But you make this, I think very compelling case in your book that regret is actually, it’s often necessary, necessary part of, for improving ourselves. So how can regret be a spur to improve ourselves?
Neal Roese: Yes, well, it’s really, really hard to live a life without regrets. Because I think that regrets are a signal to us of a particular goal or a particular aspiration that went unmet. And so one way to live your life without regrets is to have no goals, to have no standards, to have nothing that you’re trying to get done. And so if you have nothing at all that you want to do ever, then certainly you can live your life without regrets. But if you take this idea to heart now, that regret is a signal to you of something that was not quite achieved the way you had intended earlier, then it’s almost like a wake-up call, it gives you a sense of, well, now is the time to re-assess. Now is the time to reconsider perhaps the strategy that I was taking. If it’s a regret regarding a relationship. Let’s say it’s a romantic relationship or even the relationship with your mother. You might say to yourself, Well, can I do things differently? Is there a different way I can conduct myself? Should I say some different things? Maybe I should be more forthright. Maybe I should be more humorous? Maybe I should just be clear so people understand what I’m trying to get across. I think regret can be a powerful way of reconsidering what you’re doing, and then it’s a tool for improvement.
And so some of the research that I’ve been involved in, and certainly others have been involved in as well, has shown that regret, if it is experienced fully and if it is essentially listened to, it can be a spur to action. In other words, regret can trigger, first of all, a reflection process of reconsidering what you’re doing, and then it can trigger behavior change, and this is actually something that’s been observed in children. In fact, I can think of several different research studies in which measuring the extent to which regret is experienced or felt is then predictive, or it’s associated with, later performance improvement in an academic setting. So some of these studies are done with adults, some of them are done with children under the age of 10, and we see a similar kind of pattern that regret is something that goes along with performance improvement, for most people, not for everybody, and that’s something perhaps you wanna ask me about. It’s not always the case that regret is good for you. There are cases where it can be quite terrible for you, so…
Brett McKay: Well, we’ll get into that, but before we do, because I think this next question will flesh out, and talk about some of the problems that regret can have, but it sounds like whenever we do counterfactual thinking, we’re doing regret, the focus is typically, it can increase the sense of agency, ’cause you’re typically thinking, “What could I have done differently?” You don’t regret… It’s hard to regret when stuff just happens, like a hurricane hits your house, you’re typically, “Well, I didn’t do anything about that. There’s nothing I really could have done.” But it sounds like thinking about regret can increase your sense that you can do something about the problem.
Neal Roese: That’s true. So if you think about what regret actually means, the dictionary definition really is all about your own decisions. But if we step back a bit and we just ask about counterfactual thoughts in and of themselves, let’s say if we have an intervention or some kind of technique or tool that increases our tendency to have counterfactual thoughts, all else being equal those counterfactual thoughts tend to gravitate toward our own decisions. They tend to gravitate toward the things that we’re most involved in, and so merely thinking about how you could have done something different, it reinforces your own sense of agency. And I think, in the broader sense of things, it increases your sense of mastery and the feeling of being in a control of your life.
There’s that old poem that goes something like, ‘I’m the master of my destiny. I’m the captain of my soul.’ Sometimes we feel a little bit out of control. We feel like we’re just billiard balls being knocked around, but it is a powerful psychological feeling to feel like we do have a little bit of control over the things that we do, and that actually translates into a feeling of psychological wellness. We do feel better about ourselves, we feel happier and more buoyant in the morning if we feel like there’s something we can do that can have an effect, usually a positive effect, and especially in a positive effect on others. So what I’m talking about is this idea that we might deliberately push ourselves to think about how we might have done things differently in the past, which then feeds into a feeling of mastery and control, which then has a kind of positive feedback loop that then guides us into more, I don’t know, more positive action as we move forward.
Brett McKay: Right, so the example of the kid studying for… He didn’t study for his test, gets a bad grade, feels like, “Well, if I studied, I probably would have done better.” And then that will hopefully spur them to study for the next test.
Neal Roese: Yeah, but it’s a delicate balance, because what I don’t wanna say is that it’s appropriate for us to be blaming the victim or it’s appropriate to always say that whatever bad thing happens is always your fault. That’s not what I’m saying. It’s a more nuanced judgment that even if you are the victim of a natural disaster, even if you suffered a loss after a flood or a tornado, there perhaps is something you could have done in terms of prevention or just greater preparedness. And you could think through, “Well, there are always going to be acts of God, but what can I do to be more prepared?” And I think that feeling of preparedness, it’s like a security blanket. It makes us feel a little bit better about our day-to-day lives, and especially, as I’m talking to you today in the middle of a very turbulent time in our nation’s history, and I’m probably sharing a lot of anxiety with a lot of your listeners right now, I’m thinking through what are some ways of being prepared and what are some things that we can do, each of us individually, to benefit society? And that helps to quell that feeling of anxiety.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about sorta the dark side of regret. So regret can, ’cause we feel it, it stings, then we start thinking of alternatives of how we could behave and do things differently, but as you talk about in your book, too, it can go, it can run amok. So when does that happen? When does regret move from being useful to actually being a hindrance?
Neal Roese: Right. Regret can be very, very traumatic. It can be problematic when it becomes associated with depression, and so many of your listeners will know that depression is a very profound mental illness that has deep biological roots, but at the end of the day, depression has a lot of thought disorder as part of it, a kind of disordered way of thinking about the events that befall us, a disordered way of attributing the cause of the events that take place. And so one of the most serious aspects of depression is seeing that a negative event is not only caused by you yourself, but it reflects something fundamental or deep about your character as a person. So, it’s not just that I messed up yesterday and it was a random event, but it’s something about my deeply flawed character. And so usually that’s a kind of biased or inaccurate, or even unrealistic, way of thinking, but it’s a part of the fundamental disorder that depression is. Regret, now, when it is connected to depression, it’s really all about thinking about how relentlessly, how you could have done things differently. And then as the common theme underlying this relentless thought process is this feeling that you as a character, as a person, are somehow flawed or not worthy.
And so the word that we often use to describe the particular syndrome of counterfactual thoughts involved in depression is rumination, and I’m sure you’ve heard this word before, rumination, another way of describing it is repetitive thought. But it’s this kind of spinning your wheels in the mud kind of thing of over and over and over again, focusing on the same themes or the same, particular actions that you might have taken differently… I’ll give you an example in my own life. I can remember when I was a teenager, I had the ability to drive myself around because my mother was kind enough to let me borrow her car from time to time. I got into a minor accident on ice in the winter, and it didn’t involve another vehicle, but it did involve some costly damage to the car. And I re-lived that accident over and over and over again, and I thought of various actions that I could have taken to perhaps avoided the accident, some of them outlandish like what if I had thrown the car into reverse and tried to drive backwards on the ice as I’m moving forward. I’ve tried that later in life but it doesn’t work.
And so… The key idea here is that if you are thinking over and over and over again, ruminating on what you might have done differently, and you can’t break out of that cycle, it’s not only a predictor of subsequent deeper depression, but it actually really is… I think a fundamental example of what depression feels like, it’s that repetitive thought about your own past actions and how they might have been different. And so, I don’t know quite how it starts, but once it gets started you get into a vicious cycle where back and forth the negative thoughts, the regretful thoughts, repeated over and over again, create more negative emotions. And then those negative emotions lead you back toward more regretful thoughts, and they go back and forth and back and forth. And it’s really hard to break out of that cycle.
Brett McKay: Right, and that’s where talk therapy would come in ideally, you come in and sort of challenge… The whole point is like, get you out of that rumination.
Neal Roese: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And so talk therapy, or sometimes people refer to, this as cognitive behavioral therapy. The idea is to try and latch on to those disorder thought processes and rework them and get into a kind of rhythm or habit of shutting down the repetitive thinking and then re-working the thoughts into something that’s more a more realistic or perhaps more and more present focused. So, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about since I wrote that book, it’s been a while since I wrote the book, but it’s really an interesting idea that resonates with a lot of Zen thinking, or the mindfulness movement or the meditation movement that’s been increasing the United States is this idea of trying to focus on the present moment, thinking about what is happening right now, my own sensations, my own experiences in the moment, as opposed to reliving the past.
Reliving the past seems to be just a negative pathway that if you go down the path often enough, it turns out to be something that’s going to be bad for your well-being. So then the trick is, and this is the tough part. This is the trick. It’s if you feel a regret and it pops into your head and you feel bad, can you take a lesson out of it and take an insight about what you might change about yourself and then let it go. In other words, feel the regret deeply in the moment, but then a few moments later, let it go and leave it behind. And I think that’s the real trick, that’s the real tough thing that a lot of us, I think need exercise and practice at to get better at, but you’ll always be confronted by regrets, the trick is to listen to it, think about it, what it means, and then let it go, don’t get yourself stuck spinning your wheels over and over again.
Brett McKay: Well, the other dark side of regret, you mentioned it earlier, it can lead to, or not regret, but counterfactual thinking lead to blaming the victim. So here’s an outlandish example, ’cause you highlight research… We tend to do this whenever we’re doing counterfactuals about other people, we wanna assign agency to somebody. And so some guys house gets hit with a meteor. We would think, well, shouldn’t have built his house, there should have built his house different… But like that doesn’t make any sense. But our brain naturally wants to do that, because it does counterfactual thinking very well.
Neal Roese: Yes, yes. That’s a really funny example. Yeah. Meteor could hit anywhere. And I think it’s a reflection of the way in which I think a lot of us just want to see the world as predictable and understandable, if we walk around thinking that the world is just completely random and there’s nothing we can understand about it, it would be terrifying. And so, we’re definitely motivated to see order and sensibility in the world, and so when something like that does happen, a meteor strike is, yeah about as random as you get as to where exactly it will land. There is a tendency for us to try and ignore that random side and assign blame and basically reach a greater understanding. So the reason why this happened is because so and so performed this action. So psychologists have noticed this for quite a long time, a very natural, organic tendency for us to, not so much find fault in others but to find reasons for outcomes or for events inside other people’s intentions or other people’s deliberate thought processes.
And so we call that, psychologists call that, the fundamental attribution error. A tendency to see things as being caused by other people, and that means an under-appreciation for let’s say machine-based causes natural causes, just random causes. So we are… At the end of the day, we are all social beings and we live amongst other people all the time, even as we’re isolating, we’re surrounded by others, and so, there’s this natural tendency to look to other people and to assign blame and causation on the basis of other people’s actions.
Brett McKay: When you’ve done the research on regret… There’s surveys been done about this, about what people regret the most. What does that research, what do people regret the most whenever they, at the end of their life, or at any point in their life?
Neal Roese: Yeah, well there’s been some recurring internet memes about what people regret most at the end of their lives, and it’s a powerful question, because it gives us almost like a recipe for how best to live our lives so that we can feel fulfilled and grateful at the end of our lives, and so if we can listen to what older people tell us that would be a very powerful thing of how we might conduct ourselves. I’ve been involved in a couple of different research programs that have attempted to understand, in a more systematic way, what it is that people regret most in their life.
So we went about this by, first of all, trying to understand, ‘What are the big categories that people tend to think about and focus on?’ So big categories might be, regrets that might focus on your parenting, or your financial decisions, your spiritual growth, your work life, all kinds of things. So we tried to use a systematic set of categories, or buckets, into which life regrets might fall, and then we’d go about asking people, ideally using a sample of adult Americans, so that we can get a portrait of what the typical American is thinking about, and the result is that we see a lot of focus on two main categories, work and love. I would say work and love, and just unpacking that a little bit, probably the top regret tends to focus on our relationships.
When I say relationships I’m thinking mainly romantic, but also close relationships, so our friendships and our sisters and brothers, our parents, but especially our romantic relationships. It’s the people that we talk to the most, the people that we’re closest to, and so the regrets tend to center on, maybe we had a fight. Maybe we had an argument. Maybe there’s a lack of agreement. Maybe something was said that you wish you could take back, and so when we do this kind of research we often ask people to tell us exactly what their regrets are. So I’ve had the experience of reading through literally thousands of people’s life regrets, and so I see a lot of common theme of wishing that you could have made a romantic relationship better, worked harder at it, or wishing that you had recognized that it was a toxic relationship more quickly and then ended the relationship so that you could move on.
I would say that’s probably, those two kinds of things, focusing on romantic relationships are the things that people mention the most. The other thing they’ll mention is something about career, or work, or your job life, and usually those tend to center on your aspirations for what might make you more fulfilled. So, did you have a job that allowed you to do what you’re really good at? Is it something that gave you satisfaction and pleasure? Or is it something that was just a job that you had to get done? Interestingly, we don’t see that many regrets… We see some, but not that many that focus on wishing that you had made more money, or that you had been able to invest more. Money regrets definitely appear, but they’re not nearly as powerful as love and work regrets that center on ways in which you could find yourself feeling more fulfilled.
And so if you’re thinking about, ‘What are the deathbed regrets that people typically have?’ they’re usually going to be, ‘I wish I had a stronger connection with my brother. I wish I’d said more to my mother before she passed away.’ or, ‘I wish that I had managed my marriage a little bit better. I wish I’d been in touch with my kids in a more frequent way.” Again, I’m going to say that we are social animals, and our deepest inclination is to make connections to other people, and the feeling of loneliness is probably the biggest contributor to late-life regret compared to all the other things that we might do. So I think there’s a powerful lesson there for younger people. I think that people in their 20s and 30s can get kind of overly focused on work, and there’s a kind of trap of putting in too many hours to try and get ahead, to the relative neglect of other relationships. And usually young people in their 20s and 30s are able to see that there’s obviously great value and great excitement about pursuing a romantic relationship, but once people get into their 30s, and especially if they have kids, there’s a tendency to neglect their friendships, and friendships, later in life, if they’re not maintained and managed well that can bring about a lot of regret as you lose touch with people that were previously meaningful to you.
Brett McKay: This idea of like the big regrets, regretting that you didn’t pursue a romantic relationship or you didn’t invest more in your family, what’s hard about those regrets is sometimes it’s too late to actually make good on that specific relationship that you regret, but the regret could still be useful there because, “Okay, well, I can’t salvage that relationship, maybe. That love is gone forever, but I can do something different now with the other relationships I have moving forward.’
Neal Roese: Yeah, that’s exactly right, and it speaks to something that our brains naturally do, and if you watch for it maybe you’ll notice it. On average, when we recognize that a situation is finished, it’s final, there’s nothing we can do with it. So let’s say a family member has passed away and you have some regrets about some things that took place many years ago, for most people they find a way to reach closure and they can let it go because the event is done. When an event is still open, when there is still a possibility for modification, there’s still something that can be done, then regrets tends to be stronger. They tend to be more active, and the counterfactual thoughts about things you might have done differently for that particular outcome are more active, and so very naturally our brains tend to help us to rationalize our negative feelings by closing down, or shutting down, thoughts about things that are totally closed off. So that means that regrets are oftentimes a signal to us that there’s still something you might do. Even though you might have had a bad relationship experience with somebody else, it might speak to a deeper pattern that you’ve had with your relationships that you might be able to modify and therefore improve in another relationship, that this idea of an open or closed situation I think is best captured by thinking about when you buy something.
So you can buy a shirt for summer and let’s say that it looks pretty good on you, but you’re not sure whether you’re gonna keep it. Two situations, you could either return it for a full refund, or you bought it on sale and you can’t return it. So there you go. You’ve got this clear separation between either you can undo it, by returning it for a refund, or you can’t undo it and you’re stuck with it. And so research, especially in the consumer realm, shows that when you can’t return it, when you can’t do anything about it, you kind of start to like it a little bit more, you kind of reconcile yourself to the fact that you’re stuck with it, but when you can still change things around it can actually make you miserable as you keep thinking about, “Well, should I take it back? Should I keep it? What should I do?” The opportunity is still open, there’s a regret there that kind of is more active, and because you’ve got that opportunity to actually change things, the negative feelings are more active. And so I guess the lesson there is go ahead and do something or close it down, burn the bridges behind you and reach that closure by making sure that there’s nothing else that you actually can do.
Brett McKay: The research about consumer choices, consumer behavior, it reminded me of that idea that’s come out in the past 10 years, like FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out. Fear of missing out is basically counterfactual thinking.
Neal Roese: Yeah, yeah, it is. I should also mention that you introduced me at the beginning as a professor of psychology, and I’m also a professor of marketing in the business school at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, and so I actually teach courses on consumer behavior and brand management, so a lot of my day is spent thinking about how we can make better consumer decisions, so as to be more satisfied later on. But yeah, speaking about FOMO, you can talk about that in consumer terms or very general terms. It’s an interesting observation of our current world that we can look to other people’s activities and then have this worry that we might be missing out on it. So for those of you who have not heard this term, Fear Of Missing Out, literally, that’s FOMO, it’s counterfactual thinking, but it’s more of the anticipated counterfactual side. You could call it an anticipated regret.
So you’re thinking about a party that’s gonna take place this weekend, and you’re thinking about the various obligations you have, “Do I have time to do this? I’d like to go and hang out with my friends. I don’t wanna drink too much, but it’s gonna be a lot of fun.” And as you’re moving toward that event you’re actually using the same part of your brain that creates counterfactuals about the past, but now you’re creating simulations, or alternative versions, of the future and imagining what might be the consequences. And so FOMO, I think at its very core is an imagining of if you did not do something that looks like it’s gonna be pretty good do you anticipate future regret that will drive you up the wall? And it’s that in the moment you’re thinking, “Oh, I might have regret. I don’t have the regret yet, but I’m thinking I might have it, and that makes me kinda crazy.”
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s like abstraction of abstraction. It’s like two levels going on there.
Neal Roese: Yeah. Yeah, [chuckle] it absolutely is. And so I think this is clearly something that’s been accelerated by social media, by our ability to watch other people’s lives unfold. And so the funny thing is you can observe what would have happened had you had gone. There are some photos, and you see all these people having a fun time, you didn’t go, and now you have actual regret. And if this happens enough times then you start to anticipate it and you start to live in a kind of world of imagined possibilities. This, again, suggests to me like the precursor, or the beginning stages, of a depressive episode.
One of the things you just don’t wanna do is spend your life living over and over again in the future or in the past. And so, I don’t know. You’ve hit a really troubling point about our modern life, which is, what is our relationship with social media and is it making our lives better? How does it make you feel to look at other people’s lives portrayed in photos and videos that are put in very tiny, well-curated nuggets in our feed in social media? Does that make our lives better by seeing other people’s great, cool, wonderful experiences? Or does it make us feel worse about ourselves because we’re not doing that cool stuff, we’re not enjoying those fun times? I don’t know. I haven’t figured this out yet myself, except that I have myself stepped back a bit from social media in the last couple of years, and those days that I don’t actually look at anything are days that are a little bit more peaceful.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Right. [laughter] So we’ve been talking about counterfactual thinking doing upward comparisons. You’re comparing how things could have been better, and that typically makes us feel bad, and in the short term that can be good, because it spurs us, “Okay, I’m gonna do things differently.” but if taken to an extreme it can lead to depression and just us spinning the wheels and not making any progress. But we haven’t talked about sort of that downward counterfactual thinking, and I like that in the book you talk about “It’s a Wonderful Life”, the great Christmas classic with Jimmy Stewart, is like a powerful example of downward counterfactual thinking. How so?
Neal Roese: Yes. Yes, whenever I talk about It’s a Wonderful Life, I assume everybody’s seen it, but there might be some people haven’t seen it. It’s an old film in black and white and it tells this powerful story about one individual, George Bailey, who has just gone through a very tragic experience in his work life, and he’s worried about going bankrupt, and he’s worried about not being able to feed his kids, and he’s so despondent, that he’s actually pondering suicide. And at this moment, there’s an intervention by an angel who then shows him a very vivid, almost cinematic version of what the world would be like if there had been no George Bailey, what if his life and his contributions were simply subtracted out of reality.
And I guess in George’s head before that, he was thinking, “Well, my life hasn’t made a difference, nobody really cares whether I’m here or not.” Or worse, “I’ve been a negative force in the world and I’ve made things worse for a bunch of people.” And so he sees his life as worthless. But, this counterfactual world that has now spun out, shows that actually the little town in which he lives in, a little town in Middle America, would be much worse without his presence. And it shows itself in a number of ways in terms of people close to him, for example, his wife, it turns out without him around, she never marries and that means his kids never appear, and she’s not living a very happy or fulfilled life.
And then other people in the town, other friends that, you think they would have just lived their lives in exactly the same way without George around, but it turns out their lives aren’t as pleasant either. And so, the entire fabric of this alternative vision is a negative one. It’s demonstrably clearly worse than what actually is the case. So as George sees this, it actually unlocks an appreciation for certain aspects of his life that went unappreciated. It was like he took all this stuff for granted and it’s only when he started to see an alternative of how much worse things could have been without him, that he starts to appreciate all the little things that he’s done. So it’s not just the big things like, well Okay, he worked at a job that allows people to borrow money to buy homes, it’s more like the little pleasantries, that he exchanges with friends that give them a burst of joy on a daily basis.
So I think of It’s a Wonderful Life as not the only, it’s perhaps the best known, way in which a downward counterfactual can make us recognize that there are things about our true life, or the way our lives have unfolded that are actually worth appreciating. It’s a Wonderful Life is one example that I think is family-friendly, it’s easy to digest, it’s a beautifully constructed story. But there are many other such stories that are maybe a little bit darker but give us that same sense of how the past might have gone differently. One example that’s been on television recently is the story called The Man in the High Castle, which is based on a Phillip K Dick Novel that was published in the ’60s. But it’s one of many stories that ask us, What if the Second World War had turned out differently. What if Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan had been victorious? What if America had lost the war? What would things be like, and it’s worse [chuckle], and so, it’s a kind of really nasty set of experiences in which Nazi Germany controls the United States in an alternative, parallel universe.
But, what it does for us, it’s drama, it’s fun to watch, it’s interesting. But it’s also thought-provoking in a way that makes us perhaps appreciate aspects of our country, of our society that are typically un-regarded or unappreciated, it makes us see things differently. So, the way I think about downward counterfactuals is that, if they are treated with respect and if they are treated with some care and insight, it’s a way to think about your life in a different way. It’s a kind of weird mirror that allows us to see our current lives differently, but perhaps to unlock appreciation that is not typically there.
Brett McKay: Well, to me it sounds like what downward counterfactual thinking does, is it helps us provide context and meaning for our life. You were talking earlier, when you were a kid, what if my dad married someone else and they had a kid? Would that be me? It’s like you were mini making, you were being being an existentialist when you were eight years old?
Neal Roese: Yes, in fact. I probably had those thoughts, much, much younger, age four or five. I was a weird kid, I should tell you that. I had a lot of existential crisis [chuckle] before the age of five. But yeah, it really is about what do you understand to be the most meaningful parts of your life. And I think, again, that that idea that we take a lot for granted… I should back up and tell you a key research finding that helps to put this into context. So I began this conversation telling you about upward versus downward counterfactuals, and you can see these as two sides of a coin, it’s basically good or bad. And you might think of them as pretty much equivalent, like any time I flip a coin, there’s something I want, there’s something I don’t want. It could come up heads or tails, it’s like I can think about how any event could have been worse or it could have been better. But, it turns out that as we measure counterfactual thoughts among the ordinary person in every day life. They tend to have a whole lot more upward thoughts than downward thoughts, right?
So downward counterfactual thoughts are rather rare. So going back to that study I mentioned in which we’re trying to track people’s thoughts using a random sampling of thought probes during the day or any number of questionnaire studies that we’ve done. We see that upward thoughts are occurring at a rate of something like 90%, and then only 10% are downward thoughts. But I think there’s something both very, very meaningful about that, which is it tells us that most of the times, our thoughts are focused on the things we want, the things we desire, the things we’re trying to get. And so if we don’t get those things, then what immediately pops into our head is what could we have done in order to have gotten what we want?
But, when we do get what we want, we don’t think about it. This morning, I wanted a piece of bread that was baked by my friend, Brent. He just gave it to me yesterday, he made some sourdough bread at home and it was really delicious. I had it and it was just as good as I expected it would be and so I took it for granted or took it at face value and I did not think about anything else. I did not spontaneously think, “Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t have a stale hotdog bun that was in my fridge instead.” That never came to mind. I just kind of took the good thing and ran with it. By contrast, when something fails to meet our expectations, that’s when our brains start to assess and think through and try to find ways that we could have achieved a better outcome. Overall, we have a whole lot of upward counterfactual thoughts. We tend to have very few downward counterfactual thoughts. What that means is that on an every day basis, we tend not to get any of those benefits that come from thinking of downward counterfactual thoughts that help to put our lives into greater perspective or, more importantly, help us to see and appreciate those positive things that we have. And so it’s one of those reasons we tend to take things for granted and not appreciate the things that we’re blessed with.
Brett McKay: Neal, where can people go to learn more about your work that you’re doing now?
Neal Roese: Yes, well, couple of different things. You can certainly Google my name and my work website at the Kellogg School of Management has a number publications and I’ve got a mix of scholarly papers which are tough to read for people who are not experts in the area but I’ve written a bunch of other pieces that are aimed at a large audience. Several of them have appeared in the Harvard Business Review recently and they tend to be more of the business audience. I would say just look for the pieces in the Harvard Business Review.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Neal, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Neal Roese: Yeah, thank you so much. I’ve had a lot of fun today. Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Neal Roese. He’s the author of the book If Only. It’s available on amazon.com. You can check out our show notes at aom.is/regret where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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