Summary: The Power of Regret By Daniel H. Pink
Summary: The Power of Regret By Daniel H. Pink

Summary: The Power of Regret By Daniel H. Pink

Why Regret Makes Us Human

A team of cognitive scientists organized a simple gambling game in which participants had to choose one of two computerized roulette-style wheels to spin. Depending on where the arrow landed on their chosen wheel, they would either win money or lose money. When participants spun a wheel and lost money, they felt bad. No surprise. But when they spun a wheel, lost money, and learned that if they’d chosen the other wheel, they’d have won money, they felt really bad. They experienced regret.

However, one group didn’t feel any worse when they discovered that a different choice would have produced a better outcome: people with lesions on a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex. “[T]hey seem to experience no regret whatsoever,” neuroscientist Nathalie Camille and her colleagues wrote in the journal Science. “These patients fail to grasp this concept.”

In other words, the inability to feel regret—in some sense, the apotheosis of what the “no regrets” philosophy encourages—wasn’t an advantage. It was a sign of brain damage.


At Leasts and If Onlys

At Leasts make us feel better. “At least I ended up with a medal—unlike that American rider who blew it in the final seconds of the race and never reached the podium.” “I didn’t get that promotion, but at least I wasn’t fired.” At Leasts deliver comfort and consolation.

If Onlys, by contrast, make us feel worse. “If only I’d begun that final chase two seconds earlier, I’d have won a gold medal.” “If only I’d taken a few more stretch assignments, I’d have gotten that promotion.” If Onlys deliver discomfort and distress.

When researchers have tracked people’s thoughts by asking them to keep daily diaries or by pinging them randomly to ask what’s on their mind, they’ve discovered that If Onlys outnumber At Leasts in people’s lives—often by a wide margin.

At Least counterfactuals preserve our feelings in the moment, but they rarely enhance our decisions or performance in the future. If Only counterfactuals degrade our feelings now, but—and this is key—they can improve our lives later.

Regret is the quintessential upward counterfactual—the ultimate If Only.


Why Regret Makes Us Better

Perhaps you’re familiar with the First Law of Holes: “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” And perhaps you’ve ignored this law. We often compound bad choices by continuing to invest time, money, and effort in losing causes instead of stanching our losses and switching tactics. We increase funding in a hopeless project because we’ve spent so much already. We redouble efforts to salvage an irredeemable relationship because we’ve already devoted a few years to it. The psychological concept is known as “escalation of commitment to a failing course of action.” It’s one of the many cognitive biases that can pollute our decisions.

Reducing cognitive biases like escalation of commitment to a failing course of action is just one way that regret, by making us feel worse, can help us do better. A look at the research shows that regret, handled correctly, offers three broad benefits. It can sharpen our decision-making skills. It can elevate our performance on a range of tasks. And it can strengthen our sense of meaning and connectedness.

#1. Regret can improve decisions.

Irish researchers, across several experiments, have shown that children’s decision-making capabilities improve tremendously once they cross the developmental threshold, around age seven, that allows them to experience regret. “The development of regret allows children to learn from previous decisions in order to adaptively switch their choices,” write Eimear O’Connor, Teresa McCormack, and Aidan Feeney.

#2. Regret can boost performance.

One intriguing experiment asked people to play blackjack against a computer. The experimenters told half the participants that after the first round, they’d depart. They told the other half that after the first round, they’d play a few more hands. People who knew they’d be playing again generated many more If Onlys than people who were one-and-done. They were more likely to regret pursuing a flawed card-playing strategy or taking too much or too little risk. The first group, meanwhile, avoided negativity. They mostly generated At Leasts (“At least I didn’t lose all my money!”). But the card players in the second group willingly initiated the unpleasant process of experiencing regret “because they needed preparative information to help them perform better,” the researchers wrote. “Participants who did not expect to play again needed no such information and, instead, wanted only to feel good about their current performance.”

To be sure, regret doesn’t always elevate performance. Lingering on a regret for too long, or replaying the failure over and over in your head, can have the opposite effect.

#3. Regret can deepen meaning.

research has found that people who thought counterfactually about pivotal moments in their life experienced greater meaning than people who thought explicitly about the meaning of those events. The indirect paths of If Only and At Least offered a faster route to meaning than the direct path of pondering meaning itself.

Likewise, when people consider counterfactual alternatives to life events, they experience higher levels of religious feeling and a deeper sense of purpose than when they simply recount the facts of those events.

This way of thinking can even increase feelings of patriotism and commitment to one’s organization.


Undoing and At Leasting

What do we do with our regrets? If regrets make us human, how do we enlist them to make us better, more satisfied people?

The starting point is to revisit one of the key distinctions in the architecture of regret: the difference between regrets of action and regrets of inaction—between regretting what we did and regretting what we didn’t do.

For action regrets, your initial goal should be to change the immediate situation for the better. That’s not always possible, but we have two ways to advance toward that goal. We can undo many such regrets: we can make amends, reverse our choices, or erase the consequences. Think of Jeff and his now fading tattoo. We can also respond to action regrets by using At Leasts to help us feel better about our circumstances. Neither tack does much to prepare us for later, but both can help us realign now.


Suppose that without provocation, you slapped your best friend in the face or said something snarky about the deceased to his relatives at his funeral. You’d probably regret it. Most of us would.

When we undo what we’ve done, we improve our current situation. That helps. But undoing a regret is not quite the same as erasing it.

So, to address regrets of action, begin by asking yourself these questions:

  • If I’ve harmed others, as is often the case with moral regrets and sometimes the case with connection regrets, can I make amends through an apology or some form of emotional or material restitution?
  • If I’ve harmed myself, as is the case for many foundation regrets and some connection regrets, can I fix the mistake? For example, can I begin paying down debt or logging a few more hours at work? Can I reach out immediately to someone whose connection I severed?

If the action regret can be undone, try to do that—even if a light physical or metaphysical bruise remains. But if it can’t be undone, fear not. You’ve got another possibility.


The other way to address the present is not to repair our previous actions but to recast the way we think about them.

At Leasts don’t alter our behavior or boost our performance in the future, but they do help us reassess the present. For instance, several women in the World Regret Survey listed marrying a previous husband as their greatest regret. But those who were mothers also cherished the children who came from that ill-considered marriage.

“I regret marrying a loser,” they would say, “but at least I’ve got these great kids.” Finding a silver lining doesn’t negate the existence of a cloud. But it does offer another perspective on that cloud.

suppose that you recently bought a new car, but now you regret the decision and wish you’d purchased a different make and model. Assuming the car is safe and functional, the exact type of car you drive has little bearing on your enduring happiness and satisfaction. In fact, whatever car we own, plain or swanky, we get used to it pretty quickly.

So while you might try to find a future-facing lesson from the regret—next time check the consumer guides more carefully before purchasing a vehicle—you should also At Least it. Think about how it could have turned out worse. “At least I got a good deal.” “At least I didn’t buy that other make and model, which had less trunk space.” “At least it’s paid off.”


3 Steps to Make Every Regret Count

Rather than ignoring the negative emotion of regret—or worse, wallowing in it—we can remember that feeling is for thinking and that thinking is for doing. Following a straightforward three-step process, we can disclose the regret, reframe the way we view it and ourselves, and extract a lesson from the experience to remake our subsequent decisions.



The first step in reckoning with all regrets, whether regrets of action or inaction, is self-disclosure. We’re often skittish about revealing to others negative information about ourselves. It feels awkward, even shameful. But an enormous body of literature makes clear that disclosing our thoughts, feelings, and actions—by telling others or simply by writing about them—brings an array of physical, mental, and professional benefits. Such self-revelation is linked to reduced blood pressure, higher grades, better coping skills, and more.

Self-disclosure is especially useful with regret. Denying our regrets taxes our minds and bodies. Gripping them too tightly can tip us into harmful rumination. The better approach is to relive and relieve. By divulging the regret, we reduce some of its burden, which can clear a path for making sense of it.



After you disclose your regret, you are exposed—to yourself and others. And once exposed, you face a choice about how to respond. Do you dress yourself down? Or do you pump yourself up? Which is more effective—initiating a round of self-criticism or tapping your reserves of self-esteem?

The answer, it turns out, is neither.

Self-criticism can sometimes motivate our performance when we criticize ourselves for particular actions rather than for deep-seated tendencies. But unless carefully managed and contained, self-criticism can become a form of inner-directed virtue signaling. It projects toughness and ambition, but often leads to rumination and hopelessness instead of productive action.

Its opposite, self-esteem, can be more effective. Highly prized in certain parenting and education circles, where praise gushes and participation trophies gleam, self-esteem measures how much you value yourself.

But self-esteem brings downsides. Because it offers indiscriminate affirmation unconnected to genuine accomplishment, self-esteem can foster narcissism, diminish empathy, and stoke aggression. Criminals, for instance, have higher self-esteem than the general population. It can also promote bias toward one’s own group and prejudice toward other groups.

The most powerful and promising alternative—and the second step in the regret-reckoning process is called “self-compassion.”

Self-compassion begins by replacing searing judgment with basic kindness. It doesn’t ignore our screwups or neglect our weaknesses. It simply recognizes that “being imperfect, making mistakes, and encountering life difficulties is part of the shared human experience.”

By normalizing negative experiences, we neutralize them. Self-compassion encourages us to take the middle road in handling negative emotions—not suppressing them, but not exaggerating or overidentifying with them either.

So the second step in transforming our regrets is to ask ourselves three questions:

  • If a friend or relative came to you with the same regret as yours, would you treat that person with kindness or contempt? If your answer is kindness, use that approach on yourself. If your answer is contempt, try a different answer.
  • Is this type of regret something that other people might have endured, or are you the only person ever to have experienced it? If you believe your stumble is part of our common humanity, reflect on that belief, as it’s almost always true.
  • Does this regret represent an unpleasant moment in your life, or does it define your life? Again, if you believe it’s worth being aware of the regret but not overidentifying with it, you’re on your way. If you believe this regret fully constitutes who you are, ask someone else what they think.

These three questions, which form the heart of self-compassion, bring us to the last step of the process.



When we’re beset by negative emotions, including regret, one response is to immerse ourselves in them, to face the negativity by getting up close and personal. But immersion can catch us in an undertow of rumination. A better, more effective, and longer-lasting approach is to move in the opposite direction—not to plunge in, but to zoom out and gaze upon our situation as a detached observer, much as a movie director pulls back the camera.

After self-disclosure relieves the burden of carrying a regret, and self-compassion reframes the regret as a human imperfection rather than an incapacitating flaw, self-distancing helps you analyze and strategize—to examine the regret dispassionately without shame or rancor and to extract from it a lesson that can guide your future behavior.

Self-distancing changes your role from scuba diver to oceanographer, from swimming in the murky depths of regret to piloting above the water to examine its shape and shoreline.

To gain the benefits of self-distancing, try any of the following:

  • Imagine your best friend is confronting the same regret that you’re dealing with. What is the lesson that the regret teaches them? What would you tell them to do next? Be as specific as you can. Now follow your own advice.
  • Imagine that you are a neutral expert—a doctor of regret sciences—analyzing your regret in a clean, pristine examination room. What is your diagnosis? Explain in clinical terms what went wrong. Next, what is your prescription? Now write an email to yourself—using your first name and the pronoun “you”—outlining the small steps you need to learn from the regret.
  • If your regret involves your business or career, try a technique from the late Intel CEO Andy Grove, who reportedly would ask himself, “If I were replaced tomorrow, what would my successor do?”
  • Imagine it is ten years from now and you’re looking back with pride on how you responded to this regret. What did you do?

It’s true looking backward can move us forward, but only if we do it right. The sequence of self-disclosure, self-compassion, and self-distancing offers a simple yet systematic way to transform regret into a powerful force for stability, achievement, and purpose.

If we know what we truly regret, we know what we truly value. Regret—that maddening, perplexing, and undeniably real emotion—points the way to a life well lived.

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