NEWS

New Research Reveals a Key to Reducing Feelings of Regret

woman with cloudy head sitting on a bench

Francesco Carta fotografo / Getty

Key Takeaways

  • When making decisions, people tend to overestimate the appeal of the choices not made, which increases regret.
  • If able to see the reality of the forgone alternative, or second choice, individuals report less feelings of regret.
  • These findings may inform psychotherapy approaches to address regret more effectively.

Everyone has feelings of regret, but changing how these feelings are approached may help people move forward. A new study published in Psychological Science found that participants had more regret with idealized forgone alternatives.

A forgone alternative refers to the second choice that people eventually reject when making a decision. People tend to overestimate its appeal when compared to the reality of the choice they selected.

Such insights on how humans process regret hold promise for engaging individuals in the therapeutic work to address regretful feelings.

Understanding the Research

Research was done based on a total of four studies where feelings of regret were compared between cases where individuals were able to see the realities of their second choices, and cases where those realities were not revealed.

These findings demonstrate a tendency to overestimate the appeal of the second choice that is ultimately rejected in comparison to the reality of the decision that was actually made.

Researchers note that these findings contradict earlier studies, which had suggested that individuals may be more regretful after learning about the alternate outcome, but the sample was limited to only Amazon MTurk workers.

While environmental factors, such as the size of the set of choices and the uncertainty of potential outcomes, may impact the feelings that result from a decision, researchers suggest that more realistic perspectives regarding forgone alternatives may reduce regret.

Moving Forward from Regretful Decisions

Licensed clinical social worker, Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW, who specializes in grief, loss, regret, caregiving, anxiety and eldercare, says, "Their research contradicts previous research. They found that knowledge of an unchosen outcome helps stem the degree of regret."

Waichler explains, "People often overestimate that the unchosen path would have had a better outcome, which heightens feelings of regret. Revealing the unchosen outcome corrects these misconceptions. They also found that the chosen options are frequently overestimated."

Since the study highlighted two important factors that influence the outcome—the size of the choice of options and the degree of uncertainty associated with the potential outcomes—Waichler notes that more selections and greater ambiguity may produce a higher level of regret.

Waichler explains, "The type of environment influences the outcome based on this research. Readers can apply this in some situations in their lives like choosing a job or finding a partner. However, the study points out that often in real life, there is not an opportunity to learn the results of the outcomes of the paths that were not chosen." 

Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW

You can't change a past decision and focusing on the regret will compromise your ability to make present decisions. Use a bad choice to learn how to be more effective in making future decisions.

— Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW

Since foregone alternatives are life choices that were seriously considered but not taken, Waichler notes that if the decision made does not turn out the way people wanted or expected, they tend to overestimate the results of the foregone alternative.

"This heightens the level of regret," she says.

Waichler highlights, "People sometimes tell themselves there is only one right or wrong decision, which, often, is not the case. Life choices are complex and have many layers. Making a bad decision may cause people to question their judgment or their self-knowledge which often causes self-recrimination, increases self-doubts, and heightens anxiety."

The small sample size is a limitation, according to Waichler, who says, "It is a controlled environment that does not always mimic real-life. They controlled what participants learned about foregone alternatives, supplying them with information that influenced their level of regret."

As a therapist, Waichler dissuades clients from obsessing over regrets. "You can't change a past decision and focusing on the regret will compromise your ability to make present decisions. Use a bad choice to learn how to be more effective in making future decisions," she says.

By taking time to consider how you cope with regrets, Waichler asks, "Do you assign blame to yourself or others? Do you give yourself permission to forgive and move forward when the next decision arises?"

Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW

Give yourself time to recover and heal from a previous bad decision. Making decisions when you are in a bad place emotionally may result in more negative outcomes.

— Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW

In reminding yourself that you are human and everyone makes mistakes, Waichler recommends self-compassion. "Tell yourself you have gained knowledge from past experiences and this will help you make better decisions in the present and future," she says.

Waichler highlights, "Give yourself time to recover and heal from a previous bad decision. Making decisions when you are in a bad place emotionally may result in more negative outcomes."

By closely examining how regret affects you emotionally, Waichler asks, "Could you or would you have done things differently or were there factors that were out of your control that impacted the outcome? How will you use this knowledge to make better decisions in the future?" 

Through analysis and self-reflection regarding how regret influences the way you will behave in the future and the thought processes you will rely on, Waichler believes that individuals can cope more effectively.

Idealizing Alternate Outcomes Heightens Regret

Psychotherapist with Mindpath Health, Taish Malone, LPC, PhD, says, "Counterfactual thinking is when we imagine alternate choices and or outcomes based off our own suppositions." 

Malone explains, "Upward counterfactual thinking assumes that things could have been better than they actually are, and this type of counterfactual thinking is the foundation of regret."

This self-referential quality should prompt readers to consider how their perceptual distortions dictate the lasting effects a missed opportunity has on them, according to Malone.

"There is a correlation between the number of options, whether perceived or actual, and the probability, occurrence, and weight of the regret felt," she says. 

Regret was also found to be more intense when it stemmed from force, and Malone notes that force influences regret intensity and suggests an overestimation of the alternate choices as being more favorable.

Malone highlights, "Those with negative distortions, self-doubt, and low confidence are likely candidates for higher exaggeratedly negative forgone experience. Personality has been seen as a great predictor of regret."

Many personality psychologists agree on the five traits of extraversionagreeablenessopennessconscientiousness, and neuroticism, and Malone notes that higher scores of neuroticism were indicative of those who had a higher probability of regret.

Malone explains, "This can explain why some have a proclivity towards having stronger regret generally fueled by rigid psychological vulnerability and distress with depression or anxiety."

Taish Malone, LPC, PhD

This understanding should help people to understand that they shape their experiences by the mindset they have.

— Taish Malone, LPC, PhD

These findings may expand the knowledge that romanticizing the alternate outcomes is a common psychological distortion that many who have deep regrets experience, according to Malone. "Once again, the reality is not the antecedent of the regret intensity, but the perception," she says.

Malone highlights, "This understanding should help people to understand that they shape their experiences by the mindset they have."

Seeking counseling to become more mindful of adaptive aspects of emotions, cognitive flexibility, and behavior-change helps, and Malone notes that these strategies can offer alternatives to the susceptibility for negative takeaways from deeply regretful experiences.

Malone explains, "Once learned and practiced, these decision-making motivators can get people to have the confidence, resilience, and outlook to be comfortable with the way things turned out."

Individuals should understand that their outlook and the way they experience the world is malleable and largely dependent upon their own perseverance for change, according to Malone.

"I feel people feel a lot less empowered than they are, which deters many from making the necessary changes they want to see in their lives," she says.

When clients present concerns that feel unavoidable or unmanageable, Malone values the power of reminding them of their strengths so that they can reflect and see just how capable they are.

What This Means For You

As this study demonstrates, regret may be exacerbated by idealized outcomes for choices not made. If struggling to navigate such feelings, it may help to remember the difference between perception and reality, and shift expectations for the future.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Feiler D, Müller-Trede J. The one that got away: Overestimation of forgone alternatives as a hidden source of regretPsychol Sci. 2022;33(2):314-324. doi:10.1177/09567976211032657

  2. Power RA, Pluess M. Heritability estimates of the Big Five personality traits based on common genetic variantsTransl Psychiatry. 2015;5(7):e604-e604. doi:10.1038/tp.2015.96