If your biggest regret is a romantic one, you aren’t alone. Researchers from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern recently released a study that examined what the typical American felt their biggest regret was. They qualified these regrets based on action or inaction – whether the regret was based on taking a particular action, or sitting back and not doing anything about a situation.
The study was conducted by Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at Northwestern. It was a nationally representative phone survey of 370 adults who were asked to describe one regret in detail including the time in which the regret happened and whether the regret was based on action or inaction.
- Overall, 18.1% of respondents cited romantic regret as their primary regret. This is followed by family (15.9%), education (13.1%), and career (12.2%).
- Women reported more romantic regret than men (44% versus 19% respectively).
- Men reported more work-oriented regret than women (34% versus 27% respectively).
- Participants were equally split on whether the regret was based on action or inaction – but those who felt it was based on inaction tended to hold on to that regret for a longer period of time.
Psychological Impact of Regret
Regret may be painful at first, but if you use it for a positive course of action, it serves a valuable purpose. Perhaps if you regret the way you handled a particular romantic situation (e.g.: playing hard to get, saying ‘I love you’ prematurely, engaging in infidelity, etc.) that resulted in the relationship ending prematurely, you will treat your next relationship in a different way.
Roese has written a book on this called If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity and he states that regret serves an important and superordinate psychological function – improvement and betterment. Other researchers, Wrosch and Heckhausen, have found that as you age, you begin to shift those regrets on to other people to minimize the emotional damage. So maybe the age thing I was thinking about here has a peak and begins to fall again at a certain point. The point where it falls again would be the point where this psychological function of improvement and betterment is unlikely to occur. Thinking “I could be a lot happier if he/she would have been in a place where they were open to a relationship” is a lot better than thinking “I could be a lot happier if I wouldn’t have really messed it up with him/her”. The latter involves self-blame, which is a lot more painful than directing pain elsewhere (the former).