Anticipated Regret: The Psychology of Job-hunting and Reality Shows

Was one of your New Year’s resolutions to find a new job; to work at a new place? Do you feel that it is time to move on, but can’t even bother looking at the LinkedIn job recommendations that flood in everyday; let along put your résumé together (for anything other than a grant application)? Do you feel tired, but can’t look past your current situation? Even though you are well into adulthood, are you still trying to figure out what you want to be when you grow up?  Or if you want to grow up? What about the actual organization itself where you work? What’s their modus operandi? Are they willing or able to mix things up and change the way of doing business as usual? There is comfort in routine, isn’t there?

Regrets. Do you have any? Do you guide your day-to-day actions with the framework that it is best to not live with regrets?  It sounds like such a trite phrase at times, as it is so overused in everyday media and television shows. When many people think about regret they think about things that have passed. In a way, regret is a ‘backward” looking emotion. Marlon Brando’s “I could have been a contender” line in The Waterfront is a prime example.  But where does that regret come from: Things you did that you shouldn’t have done or things you didn’t do? Do you regret inaction or do you regret action? What really gnaws at you? What runs over and over in your head when you are staring up at the ceiling at night? Researchers Tom Gilovich and Vicki Medvec found that time is a key factor in what we regret. Over the short term, we tend to regret our actions. But over the long haul, we tend to regret our inactions. Which is what seems to be the driving force behind many people’s interactions these days; in particular reality television shows.


Regret is often cast as the motivating force behind many actions, especially on reality shows these days. They don’t want to live tomorrow regretting what they could have done or what they went on to do.  It seems that by having a camera following people around and when say $100,000 is on the line, people get caught up in the feeling of “anticipated” regret.  They don’t want to regret going on the show and losing out.  Some get past that feeling and go on to become master manipulators and others become frozen fearing they will make the wrong step and they will end up being voted out. Tell me how many people do you know or have you seen that exhibit this emotion of anticipated regret that actually enjoy life in the moment? Seems some people get so caught up in the possibility of tomorrow’s regret that they just bypass today.   Don’t get me wrong here, I am not talking about living for now and carpe diem. This is no “Dead Poet’s Society” posting. I am not saying live for today; I am just saying stop worrying about what you may regret tomorrow.


So, what is regret, anyway? On the basis of a comparison between what I have and what I could have had, I may experience, to a variable extent, the emotion of regret.  Consequently, on the basis of this comparison (which is the emotion of regret) I will fine tune my future decisions.  Some researchers note that regret can help to optimize decision behavior; and that in some perverse way it can be defined as a rational emotion. However, this sense of anticipated regret can cause more anxiety than actual regret. The anxiety caused by the concern that one might lose may be more powerful than the sting of actually losing.  Go figure.  Anticipated regret is such a powerful emotion that it can cause us to avoid risk, lower our expectations, steer us towards the familiar and away from new, interesting experiences. Which leads us back to the opening sentence above: Was one of your New Year’s resolutions to find a new job; to work at a new place? It’s not so much “fear of the unknown”, but fear of what one may regret. Will you regret leaving? Will you regret taking a chance?  If you move on, on your own terms, they are your terms. You own that decision. That’s what many people anticipate regretting. You also see this anticipated regret with the rising number of cohabiting couples. The number of opposite sex cohabiting couples has increased, from 1.5 million in 1996 to 2.9 million in 2012.  Many do not want to get married because they anticipate that they may regret that decision. They are anticipating the dissolution of the marriage before it even happens, yet think staying with the person for years on end is the right decision? Surely, anticipated regret is not a very rational undertaking. Have you seen that there is also a rise in “no-nups” amongst cohabiting couples?  It seems that people really don’t want to venture much. Wasn’t there a time when we were reminded that if you do not take risks, you will never accomplish anything: nothing ventured; nothing gained!


Anticipating regret is actually a bit paralyzing. So, in trying to avoid regret, you end up in a state of stasis. With anticipated regret, you can also end up in a polar opposite to stasis. You can end up in a state of irrational exuberance.  Have you ever been to an auction? Have you ever bid on something? Have you ever overbid? Overbidding, seems to me, to be an indicator of anticipated regret.  There is this overwhelming sense of the need to ensure that one does not lose the item.  This doesn’t apply to just auction sales, but one can probably see that as well in relationships and the sense of overcompensation and suffocation. No one likes to be wrong and certain situations make people feel that is a higher likelihood.  Nowadays, where children are being brought up top believe that self-esteem is the end all, be all and we provide cake for just trying, anticipated regret will surely rise and a state of stasis and inertia will take over the souls of many.  Ok, I’m exaggerating the doom and gloom on this one. But think about it: when we prop people up with contact ego boosts will people still take chances–even with the possibility of failure, or will people remain stuck afraid to leap in anticipation of getting hurt? Of course, I am not arguing that children’s self-esteem should be ignored. Self-esteem is a protective bulwark against the increases in bullying behavior we have seen lately.  But protection of self-esteem should not come at the cost of curiosity and chance-taking.  As some have noted, some mistakes are too much fun to only do once. Plus, you really want a smart child? Note that good judgment often comes from bad experiences that resulted from bad judgment.  Now, if you are a person that doesn’t learn from mistakes, perhaps anticipated regret is for you.


Regrets. I have had a few. But as Christian and Satine in “Moulin Rouge” taught us way after Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” introduced us to it: Come what may.  Let whatever pops up, come to pass.

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