While the common adage may encourage you not to dwell on the past, a new study finds that many harbor regrets, with romantic ones being particularly common.
But women outdid men in that category, with guys ranking work regrets above relationship ones, the researchers say.
"Regret is a common part of our lives, and it's something that we see ... in people of all walks of life," said study researcher Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
But he said that regret could also be beneficial.
"The bad is obvious, but the good is it helps us put our lives together, helping us to put things into perspective," said Roese. With romantic regrets, he said, "It helps to recognize ideals and goals. ...You can channel it into a current relationship. You may see some kernel of insight you can implement in your current life."
Much of the research on regret is based on tests of college students, who are relatively inexpensive to compensate, simple to recruit and live on or near the campuses where the studies are done. In an attempt to get a better handle on regrets among the general public, this survey was done via phone to reach more diverse subjects.
Roese said that one finding in the current study that differed from past research was that romance, rather than education, was a primary source of regret. [How Do I love Thee? Experts Count 8 Ways]
However, he noted that there was a split. Nearly 45 percent of women expressed regret in the area of love, while less than 20 percent of men did. Meanwhile, nearly 35 percent of men expressed work regrets, compared with less than 30 percent of women.
"It does conform to a certain stereotype that we have, but it has been thought of for a long time that women are the keepers of relationships," said Roese. "That is an important element of their lives, and it makes sense that their regret would focus on failures to meet those ideals."
But the choice in what to discuss may have been impacted by the study method.
"There's a general idea in research that women are more concerned with social relationships than men are. Men are more concerned with career and self-advancement," said Joachim Krueger, a professor of psychology at Brown University who has researched gender stereotypes, and was not involved in the current study.
Since the survey was done by phone and not in-person where participants might have opened up more, women may have felt a greater need to conform to societal expectations.
"There's nothing in this study that would allow us to unpack that, and that's a pity," said Krueger. "There's nothing to say if this is how people feel ... or an opportunity to present themselves as reasonable and dutifully moral."
Overall, there was little difference in whether people regretted inaction versus action. The major distinction had to do with time.
"Missed opportunities stick in our brains longer, and they bug us for a longer period of time," Roese said. "Whereas something you did do, you are bugged by that immediately, and then it dissipates, or goes away. You're more able to make peace with it than a missed opportunity."
Krueger said that may involve the fact that the time to make up for a missed opportunity diminishes as a person ages (and thus gets closer to death).
"As people grow older, there's just a greater accumulation of opportunities that are gone," he said. "Younger people still have the illusion there's time left and they can fix things."
The study, co-authored by Roese and Mike Morrison, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
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