Everybody has something they regret. Whether it is a small decision like whether or not you talk to that interesting person at the bar, or much larger decisions such as your degree, career choice or even committing crime. I can certainly think of a lot of things I really wish I had done differently, but why do we dwell on such things? What’s the point of questioning your past decisions when you have no power whatsoever to change them? Why is the human race so biologically predisposed to live wishing they could change the past? Well, the obvious answer is to help us learn from previous mistakes, but surely we could learn to do things differently without that horrible “if only” feeling. Hampshire (1960) argues that one can only claim to truly feel regret if in future situations they do not act in the same way they caused them to feel the initial regret. I, however, think that you can definitely regret something and still continue to do it. I, for example, always regret leaving work till the last minute, but reliably continue to do so. I think the feeling of regret in this case is overridden by the short term rewards of putting off the work. Rorty (1980), among others, disagrees with Hampshire’s argument, stating that it’s easy to come up with examples of repeated regret such as what I just proposed.
Regret is widely regarded as an irrational and ruinous emotion, and as the economic decision making theory suggests, it is the illogical state of being stuck in the past (Landman, 1993). Because regret is such an unpleasant feeling, people often attempt to avoid regret by not taking any risks or engaging in behaviour which could result in a regretful the outcome. Although this reduces regret in the short term as you won’t regret your actions, long term regret is actually increased as you come to regret your inaction (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995). Therefore it could be argued that best way to avoid chronic, long term regret is take calculated risks and not shy away from tough decisions. Although you are bound to lose out sometimes, in the long run you will have less regrets and more memories.
In order to study regret we must first define the difference between feelings of regret and those of guilt and remorse. Feeling guilty or remorseful is when you consciously made the decision to cause someone else harm or pain, for instance you planned and consciously decided to attack somebody and you later feel guilty for your actions. Regret, on the other hand, occurs when you take action without knowing the outcome and later regret your decision, for example you take a loved one hiking and they injure themselves. Although the injury is not your fault, you feel responsible for them being in a situation where they hurt themselves (Lisa Bonchek Adams, 2011).
This can be applied to prisoners. Do “reformed” convicts generally feel guilt and remorse for the pain they have caused or do they just regret getting caught? Prisoners showing remorse for their actions can heavily influence jury decisions as shown by Hogue & Peebles (1997) who found that juries were more likely to sentence rapists more harshly if they showed no remorse than those who expressed feelings of guilt and regret. Therefore, it is in a defendant’s interest to act remorseful in court however it is extremely difficult to determine whether or not the remorse is genuine or whether they are just doing everything in their power to lessen their regret of being caught.
However, in a study of Texas death row prisoner’s final statements between 1982 and 2007 by Eaton & Theuer (2009), almost a third of them expressed feelings of remorse, many specifically apologising to family members and people they have harmed. As it is their final statement, there is no chance of their words actually affecting the result of their sentence so it can be inferred that the majority of these apologies and feelings of remorse are in fact genuine. I think that this is a fairly surprising statistic. In order to get the death penalty I would imagine the crime would have to be of a particularly malicious nature and for a third of death row criminals to truly feel remorse for their actions and not just regret that it caused them to die is surprising. That is, assuming that the apologies were genuine and the crimes were malicious and planned.
I would like to end by stating that regret is a deep rooted part of human society, I think that although it is a negative emotion and causes a lot of pain and can indeed be ruinous and irrational in the long run, it is also an important part of empathy. Without the looming presence of possible regret and remorse we are more like to engage in behaviours that are detrimental to ourselves and those around us. Living a life of regret, being stuck in the past and dwelling on our mistakes is extremely damaging to our lives and even health but regretting past bad decisions is important in making better calls in the future.
Eaton J. & Theuer A. (2009). Apology and Remorse in the Last Statements of Death
Row Prisoners. Justice Quarterly, 26(2), 327-347.
Gilovich, T., & Medvec, V. H. (1995). The experience of regret: What, when, and why.
Hampshire, S. (1960). Thought and action. London: Chatto & Windus.
Hogue, T., & Peebles, J. (1997). The influence of remorse, intent, and attitudes toward sex offenders on judgments of a rapist. Psychology, Crime & Law, 3, 249-259 Psychological Review, 102, 379-395.
Landman, J. (1993). Regret: Persistence of the possible. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lisa Bonchek Adams. (2011, February 7th) A psychologist’s perspective on guilt vs. regret (Blogpost). Retrieved from http://lisabadams.com/2011/02/07/from-a-psychologists-perspective-guilt-vs-regret/
Rorty, A. O. (1980). Agent regret. In A. O. Rorty (Ed.), Explaining emotions (pp. 489-506). Los Angeles: University of California Press