Regrets Caused by Action vs. Inaction

I’m fascinated by the notion of regret. If you want to understand someone, you should understand their regrets. People are more honest and insightful when talking about regret than when sharing life experiences about which they have pride.

On the topic, I often invoke the Mark Twain line “We regret the things we don’t do more than the things we do.” In other words, looking back and wondering “I wonder what would have happened if I had done…” hurts more than looking back at something that didn’t work out and regretting having taken the action.

Vaughan Bell over at Mindhacks has a good post on a recent study of Americans’ regrets. The sources regret are predictable — romance, career, education, family. The interesting part has to do with whether inaction actually leads to more regret than action. Sounds like it depends whether you want short term and acute pain or softer, more lasting pain:

The study also found that regrets about things you haven’t done were equally as common as regrets about things you have, no matter how old the person.

The difference between the two is often a psychological one, because we can frame the same regret either way – as regret about an action: ‘If only I had not dropped out of school’; or as a regret about an inaction: ‘If only I had stayed in school’.

Despite the fact that they are practically equivalent, regrets framed as laments about actions were more common and more intense than regrets about inactions, although inaction regrets tended to be longer lasting.

So the question of whether it is better to regret something you haven’t done than regret something you have, might actually be answerable for some people, but we still don’t know how much choice we have over adopting the different views of regrets or whether this is largely determined by the situation.


Here’s my post on regret aversion as a decision making framework. Here’s my post on the regrets of the dying. Here are the things various friends regret not doing when they turned 18.

8 comments on “Regrets Caused by Action vs. Inaction
  • A couple of footnotes in the corresponding set of papers should be noted. I quote:

    “1. We also administered measures of self-esteem, subjective well-being, need for control, and approach/avoidance tendencies. However, these were not related to the main variables of interest and hence are not discussed further.

    3. Household income was also measured. It was highly correlated with education level (p<.001) but did not moderate regret effects and is therefore not discussed further.
    4. It is possible that regrets were most likely to fall in the domains of romance and family because individuals may simply experience more such events than falling in other domains. As such, our results reveal only the relative frequency of regrets from different life domains, not whether specific life domains have the capacity to evoke regrets with greater frequency or intensity."

    So some other takeaways from the paper are:
    1. Your self-esteem, well-being, need for control and tendency to approach or avoid (introversion) do not matter in this regard. Unlike many other measures, your personality doesn't seem to matter significantly.
    2. Money also doesn't matter.
    3. If you learned about something which you should prioritize, you should keep in mind that the effect from romance and family comes from the universality of romance and family in nearly all human ambition. There are people who don't care about education at all, in any way, shape or form, but it may be the case that there are fewer people who don't care about family and romance, so we may get the effect we're seeing from there.

  • I agree with Chris that I end up taking on too many things because I fear regrets of inaction.

    I also think that it’s far easier to evaluate the alternative for “action regrets,” because if the action hadn’t occurred, you’d basically be returning to how things were prior to the action being taken. That’s a known quantity.

    For “inaction regrets,” it’s a lot harder to evaluate what would have happened, which may be the reason that those regrets tend to be more lingering and long-lasting. It takes a fair amount of reflection and consideration to consider how things would be different if one had taken action.

    Interesting post. Good food for thought, as always 🙂

  • ill, that pilot’s karma must have been with him because the quick thinking controller in the tower in Cork airport realised what was happening and reverted to using SMS text messages to the pilot instead to talk him through approach and landing, using a direct radar fix on the plane and a visual confirmation of the ‘wheels down’ on a fly-by before finally giving the pilot the ‘go’ order to land.

  • I remember reading about a study one time of residents in a seniors’ home. When asked what they regretted most in their lives, overwhelmingly the answer was, I didn’t take enough risks.

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