Daniel Kahneman on Regret

Regret is an interesting emotion and worth deep consideration. It is a System 2 emotion, that is, an emotion we feel when we pause, reflect on our life or actions, and consider the decisions we have or have not made in the past. System 1, the active, fast, and general default mode of our brain doesn’t feel regret. It lives in the moment and takes action based on our current inputs. It can receive feedback from System 2’s regret and make adjustments with new decisions and actions, but it is too busy with the present moment and environment to be the one building the emotion of regret.


Regret also stems from our ability to imagine different realities. Daniel Kahneman describes it as an emotion associated with loss and mistakes that allows us to self-correct and perceive different opportunities and realities that we might want to live within. It can modify how we act and behave, before we have even been faced with a decision. Kahenman writes, “decision makers know that they are prone to regret, and the anticipation of that painful emotion plays a part in many decisions.”


If I pause to think about regret, I typically think about a person on their deathbed, regretful for all the things they never did in their life. A fear of being this person has pushed me to try to do more, be more involved, and have varied and interesting experiences. The trite quote is that people on their deathbed are more regretful for the things they didn’t do than the things in life they did do. In this view, people recognize regret, and it turns into a fear of missing out that spurs people to action before it is too late, before they regret not taking action.


However, this idea may not represent the most powerful feelings of regret that we may experience. Kahneman writes, “People expect to have stronger emotional reactions (including regret) to an outcome that is produced by action than to the same outcome when it is produced by inaction.” As an example, Kahneman presents two fictional characters. Both have investments with companies A and B. One individual considers making a greater investment in company A, but does not and loses out on $1,200 of potential gains. The other removes some of her investment from company A, and she ends up with $1,200 less than what she could have received if she had done nothing. The consensus among people who read Kahneman’s examples indicate that the person who actively pulled money out of company A feels more regret than the person who never added extra investment funds to the company. Doing nothing and missing a potential gain is less regretful than taking an action that creates a perceived loss.


Loss aversion is powerful, and we are more likely to take actions to avoid losses to help us avoid feelings of regret rather than take chances at potential gains. The gains we don’t receive won’t cause as much regret as losses we do receive. Regret is not just the fear of missing out or the fear of having done too little that I described earlier. It is a powerful emotion that kicks in when we reflect on our life and see that our actions directly lead to losses and mistakes that we made. We may begin to change our behaviors and decisions to avoid similar losses in the future, and avoid the regret that those losses will bring, but that can drive us into making irrational choices in the present moment, with the hope of not losing out in the future.

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