The older we get, the more we regret choosing virtue over vice, new research shows.
Everyone is familiar with the flip-flop between guilt and regret when it comes to decisions between indulgence or keeping your nose to the grindstone. Ran Kivetz and Anat Keinan of Columbia University have now shown that the guilt that we often feel right after making "indulgent" choices flares up as quickly as it passes. However, regrets over missed opportunities for fun never fade. In fact, they increase over time.
The upshot is that vices are regretted in the short-run, and virtues are regretted in the long-run.
What will you regret?
The key is to think about what you will regret in the long run, she said.
"If you think that years from now, when you look back at your choice you will regret choosing the vice," she said, "then you should exercise self-control. However, if you anticipate that years from now, you will feel that you missed out on a pleasurable experience and regret not indulging, then you should take that vacation or have that decadent chocolate cake."
Research in this field often examines how consumers make purchasing and other decisions involving choices between work and play. Experts have said that yielding to short-term temptations will lead to regret, so the key to minimizing regret is to exercise self-control and to resist temptation.
Kivetz and Keinan added the element of time, showing that regret in the long-term is actually minimized by doing the opposite, pitching self control and yielding to temptation.
"The passage of time highlights the fact that some opportunities to enjoy life and create special memories are unique," Keinan said.
The researchers conducted a number of experiments to test this line of thought.
In one, they surveyed 31 travelers waiting for domestic flights at La Guardia Airport and 32 park visitors in a major East Coast city. They asked subjects to recall a situation in which they chose either work or pleasure and then to rate the extent to which they regretted their past choice. Those who chose pleasure over work experienced less regret when they considered a distant rather than a near past decision.
Another experiment involved asking 69 college students the week after winter break to report how much regret they felt for their inactions—both missed opportunities for fun and missed opportunities for making money or working more—during the break either a week ago or a year ago. Subjects reported more regret for failing to indulge in fun during the distant winter break than for failing to indulge during the near past winter break.
Wasteful and immoral
People tend to overemphasize virtue at the expense of vice because indulgences are harder to justify and western society puts more emphasis on virtue and taking care of necessities, Keinan said. Indulgence is seen as less ethical, more wasteful and possibly even immoral.
Keinan and Kivetz's work, published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, shows that when people consider long-term regrets, they are more likely to indulge and splurge on pleasurable products.
Keinan quoted the former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, who once said: "Nobody on his deathbed ever said, 'I wish I had spent more time at the office.'"
The researchers agree and recommend that we look at the big picture and remember to think about "the here and now" and "what life is all about."