April 13, 2009

Save Some Regret, You Might Need It Later Before you can rub your eyes in disbelief, know that the title of this post isn’t a belated April Fool’s Day prank. On the contrary, it’s breaking new psychology research. According to a recent study by Colleen Saffrey at the University of Victoria in Canada, as well as Amy Summerville and Neal J. Roese at the University of Illinois, regret is an emotion that can be quite useful. Regret is based on counterfactual thoughts, or “the ‘what if’ thoughts about ‘what might have been,’” says Summervillle. “There’s a lot of research that has shown that counterfactual thoughts are an important part of how people reason about cause and effect, learn from their mistakes, and even form intentions about the future,” says Summerville. One part of the study found that out of 12 negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, guilt, and jealousy, regret was reported as the most beneficial over a variety of functions. These functions included making sense of past experiences, facilitating approach and avoidance behaviors for future events, gaining insights into self, and preserving social harmony. Another part of the study found that regretful experiences were dominated by more positive than negative evaluations as compared to other negative emotional experiences. As for implications in the workplace, the amount of regret you experience largely depends on how much control you feel you have over your job. “The more control you feel over an area of your life, the more regret you are likely to feel, which is really quite functional given how useful regret is for learning,” notes Summerville. After all, “it’s better to apply that insight to things you can change rather than the things you can’t.”

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