New Study: The Path Not Taken Is Probably Way Worse Than You Imagine (So Regret Your Choices Less)

Best-selling author Daniel Pink has a new book out called The Power of Regret, in which, according to a recent WSJ piece by the author, he argues: “Regret is not dangerous or abnormal. It is healthy and universal, an integral part of being human. Equally important, regret is valuable,”

It is clearly true that you can learn from regret, adjusting your life to avoid future missteps. It’s also undeniable that even if you aim for ‘no regrets,’ being human, you will fail. But that doesn’t mean regret doesn’t feel awful and you should do everything you can to avoid fruitless suffering over paths not taken.  

Which, according to a new study published in Psychological Science, a lot of us needlessly subject ourselves to. The research found people tend to idealize the choices they didn’t make. Sometimes Pink is right and the path not taken was the better bet and cause for reflection. But other times the path not taken was way crummier than you imagine. Telling the difference between these two possibilities can save you a lot of misery. 

We’re lousy at imagining the paths we didn’t take. 

For regrets to make sense it must be true that you genuinely would have been better off taking the other option. Sometimes it’s easy to evaluate if this is true. If someone asks you why you regret not buying bitcoin in 2018, you can just point to a graph of its rising price. But most regrets aren’t like that. 

They’re based on how we imagine things would have turned out had we taken a different path. This is the kind of regret where you sit and wonder if you hadn’t broken up with that college flame or look at your mediocre meal and tell yourself, “I should have ordered the steak.”

Would the steak actually have been better than the pasta? Would you and your college girlfriend have gone on to romantic bliss? The only way to answer these questions is to use your imagination. And according to this new study from researchers out of Dartmouth and the University of Navarra our imaginations are pretty unreliable when it comes to evaluating options not taken. 

The research team asked 800 study participants to choose the most attractive pair of a set of nine blurred faces. Participants then had to pick their top face, which was revealed, unblurred. The researchers then asked participants how much they regretted their choice, but with a twist. Sometimes the other, rejected finalist was also revealed. Sometimes it remained blurred. What did this exercise reveal? 

“The team found that when the rejected face remained blurred, participants were more likely to report feeling regret about their choice, and also expected the face to be more attractive compared to the actual attractiveness ratings given by participants for whom it was visible. In other words, participants who never found out what the rejected face looked like overestimated its attractiveness, and this seemed to lead to feelings of regret about not choosing it,” the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog sums up.

A follow-up study in which participants were asked to participate in a mock hiring process and choose whom to hire among a pool of candidates produced similar results. When additional information about rejected shortlist candidates was withheld, participants’ imaginations ran wild and they overestimated how awesome these unchosen candidates would have been, leading to baseless regret.

Is the grass really greener? 

This is only one study but it does point to an essential truth about regret: much of the time it is built on top of imagined alternatives.You regret not going to law school, say, because you picture yourself as a successful, well-paid lawyer. Or we beat ourselves for not picking that other hotel because in our mind’s eye it is a palm-lined paradise.  

This study is a healthy reminder that those imaginings are often seriously idealized. We focus on the lawyer’s paycheck but ignore the crushing hours, and we never imagine the other hotel has a roach infestation. 

Pink is surely right that we can “make our regrets work for us.” HIs article (and probably his book too though I haven’t read it) is full of concrete advice on how to do just that. But before you start unwinding a regret, it’s worth considering whether it should be a regret at all. Too many of our woulda, shoulda, coulda’s are built on top of over-rosy assessments of the other options. 

Ask yourself how you’re so sure the grass would have been greener had you gone the other way, and whether you’re taking full account of the downsides of the path not traveled. You’ll probably eliminate or reduce more than a few regrets without any other action at all. 

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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