What Americans Regret The Most

What do Americans regret the most? Regret can weigh you down, leading to focusing on the past rather than a brighter future. Each of us has a bundle of regrets; I will spare you my own list – it is unlikely you have the time or interest to lend a sympathetic ear. What’s on your list?

Researchers at the University of Illinois and Northwestern University set out to answer this question by surveying a randomized sample of adult men and women across the U.S.

How did they do the study?

A total of 370 adult Americans (207 were women) completed a survey via telephone (in exchange for $5; mailed). The response rate (i.e., the proportion of eligible respondents who
completed the interview) was 20.5% and the refusal rate (i.e., the proportion of eligible respondents who refused the interview or broke it off after starting) was 49.1%.

Participants were asked to report one salient regret in detail, and then to provide further information about the nature of the regret. Participants next answered single questions reflecting variables of interest (listed below); two other variables were coded from participants’ responses.

Action effect. ”Does the regret focus on something you should have done, or something you should NOT have done?”

The researchers concluded:

The most frequent regrets of Americans are about love, education, and work. Romantic regrets–America’s most common–focused on lost chances for potential romances, and relationships that did not live up to their potential. The other common regrets for Americans involved family, education, career, finances, and parenting. Women were more likely to have regrets about relationships (romance, family), and men were more likely to have regrets about work (career and education). It was the lack of romantic relationships and the lack of higher education that were regretted most.

Do these results reflect American values and lifestyles or can they be applied globally?

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While not surprising, the relative value of work and love for men and women is particularly striking. Any recommendations of how to bridge that gap?

Sources:
AAAS Eureka Alert.

You can read the full paper here.

Comments

  1. #1 Isabel
    June 8, 2011

    Aren’t you assuming that regret=value? It could be delayed realization of value; the men may have taken more romantic risks in the first place, and the women may have chosen jobs based more on fulfillment than a big paycheck, for example.

  2. #2 Jeff
    June 8, 2011

    Indeed. See: “Keeping Women In The Picture – How Paris Hilton Saved Mika Brzezinski’s Job”

    http://scienceblogs.com/deanscorner/2011/05/keeping_women_in_the_picture_-.php

  3. #3 Monado, FCD
    June 9, 2011

    I wonder if a more specific breakdown will be forthcoming?

    How about not getting more education, not leaving town, wasted years? I’ve read elsewhere that 60 – 70% of American parents wish that they hadn’t had children.

  4. #4 David Boulton
    June 9, 2011

    Shame must play a significant role in regret. More than the absence of the positive (value) regret is also an experience of the negative (primarily shame affect).

    By definition regret is personal yet it is commonly used impersonally. I assume the study was clear to differentiate this for the respondents.

    It would be helpful if the next steps in this work could shine more light on the specific affects involved and their coimplications with the cognitive content.

  5. #5 Sorcha
    June 10, 2011

    I suspect that you would find different results on a global scale, especially if the surveys were done in less developed countries.

    Regret is typically based on choices, so ironically, if you have fewer choices, you will probably have fewer regrets. If your life opportunities are limited, you have little access to education, you have an arranged marriage and children are something that happens rather than a decision — well, that would suck in so many ways, but one small consolation is that you are spared the “if onlys”.

    Regret is also a personal thing; you regret what you did or didn’t do, not what happened externally to yourself. So, if you live in an individualistic society where success is (in theory anyway) based on merit, then your missed opportunites are “your fault” — and therefore more likely to be regretted.

    Opportunites and individualism are generally Good Things, but they do leave open the door to regret.

  6. #6 Jeff
    June 10, 2011

    Thank you for your thoughtful, insightful comment.

  7. #7 Fred
    June 10, 2011

    So, if you live in an individualistic society where success is (in theory anyway) based on merit, then your missed opportunites are “your fault” — and therefore more likely to be regretted.

    Don’t you think people who live in more collectivist societies also blame themselves and have regrets for not living up to the social ideal?

  8. #8 Isabel
    June 10, 2011

    “Opportunites and individualism are generally Good Things, but they do leave open the door to regret.”

    To add even another layer: to the degree the “opportunities and individualism” are often an illusion used by those in power in first-world countries to manipulate the populace, people may be suffering from “false regret”i.e. blaming themselves when there was probably not a lot they could have done about the situation (or at least not nearly as much as they imagine).

    If you’ve been sold an illusion of a perfect fairy-tale future since childhood, perhaps anything less than that will feel like failure. And in a society where people constantly hear about people pulling themselves up from their bootstraps, hitting it big on Wall St or American Idol; or about “the secret” and “creating their own reality by focusing on the positive” and other self-help nonsense, who is to blame when things don’t work out great but themselves?

  9. #9 Renee
    June 12, 2011

    Why do we need to close the gap? Do women need to regret more about their career, or do men need to regret more about their love life?

  10. #10 Nelie
    June 13, 2011

    I think women are more likely to have regrets about relationship-related choices because, for women, there is more of a time limit on these choices. It is much easier for a man in his 50s and 60s to find a partner and marry or remarry than it is for a woman, thanks to the differences in the availability of younger partners. So if a man makes a mistake that leaves him alone at that age, the mistake isn’t as costly. Same with the opportunity to have children. A 50 year old man just needs to find a significantly younger partner–not the easiest thing perhaps but not impossible. A 50 year old woman is SOL. If this hypothesis is correct, if analyzed the make/female difference by age group, you should find that it significantly interacts with age.