What do people think about the emotion of regret? Recent demonstrations of the psychological benefits of regret have been framed against an assumption that most people find regret to be aversive, both when experienced but also when recalled later. Two studies explored lay evaluations of regret experiences, revealing them to be largely favorable rather than unfavorable. Study 1 demonstrated that regret, but not other negative emotions, was dominated by positive more than negative evaluations. In both studies 1 and 2, although participants saw a great deal of benefit from their negative emotions, regret stood out as particularly beneficial. Indeed, in study 2, regret was seen to be the most beneficial of 12 negative emotions on all five functions of: making sense of past experiences, facilitating approach behaviors, facilitating avoidance behaviors, gaining insights into the self, and in preserving social harmony. Moreover, in study 2, individuals made self-serving ascriptions of regret, reporting greater regret experiences for themselves than for others. In short, people value their regrets substantially more than they do other negative emotions.
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This research was supported National Institute of Mental Health grant MH55578, awarded to the first author. Ashley Gonzalez conducted Study 1 as part of a McNair Fellowship summer research program. Comments on this research by Chris Fraley and Justin Kruger are much appreciated.
Emotion appraisals (study 1)
In general, I tend to feel this emotion often
When I feel this emotion, I feel it very deeply
This emotion helps me to know how to act in the future
This emotion keeps me from making the same mistakes again
Overall, this emotion is useful to me
This emotion gets in the way of understanding past events
This emotion is pointless and unproductive
Overall, this emotion is bad for me
Regret Scale (Schwartz et al. 2002) (study 2)
1. Whenever I make a choice, I’m curious about what would have happened if I had chosen differently
2. Whenever I make a choice, I try to get information about how the other alternatives turned out
3. If I make a choice and it turns out well, I still feel like something of a failure it I find out that another choice would have turned out better
4. When I think about how I’m doing in life, I often assess opportunities I have passed up
5. Once I make a decision, I don’t look back
Functions of Negative Emotions (study 2)
Helps me make sense of past events
Helps me come to terms with undesirable outcomes
Prepares me for action
Helps me know how to act in the future
Stops me from making the same mistakes again
Stops me from doing dangerous or harmful things
Helps me gain insight to my own attributes
Helps me better understand the impact of my actions
Improves my relationships with others
Helps me better understand what others are thinking and feeling
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Saffrey, C., Summerville, A. & Roese, N.J. Praise for regret: People value regret above other negative emotions. Motiv Emot 32, 46–54 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-008-9082-4