A “Regret Lab” sounds like pretty much the opposite of a rewarding place to work.
But psychologist Amy Summerville ’02 finds regret fascinating largely because it’s inherently hopeful. “Regret really is about helping us learn from our mistakes,” she says. Her research has shown that “the areas of life where people feel the most regret are the areas that they feel like have the most opportunity for future improvement.”
Summerville leads the Regret Lab at Miami University in Ohio, where she is an associate professor of social psychology. She describes regret as consisting of two components: an unpleasant feeling and a counterfactual thought. “It’s obviously a negative emotion,” she says, “but it’s also based on this particular pattern of thought that I could have done something differently, and that would have produced a better outcome.”
I never tell anyone at a cocktail party that I’m an expert on regrets.
She and her team of student researchers gather data on people’s regrets and study how counterfactual thoughts affect social cognition and decision-making. If, for instance, subjects try to solve a series of anagrams, and then express regret at performing poorly, will they spend more time and effort on the next test?
Her lab is also collaborating with her school’s College of Engineering, in the hope they can apply what they know about regret to identify simple teaching techniques that will help students pass prerequisites and stick with engineering. The Regret Lab has also attracted media attention: Summerville was interviewed on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain in September 2017 and quoted extensively in columns for The New York Times Magazine and Popular Science in December.
Summerville—who “fell in love with the brain” and did a neuroscience thesis at Amherst—encourages the public’s engagement with science through her Twitter feed and the Regret Lab’s Facebook page. But, she jokes, “I never tell anyone at a cocktail party that I’m an expert on regrets.” Through personal experience and previous research, inspired in part by popular regret-related hashtags on Twitter, she knows that people tend to be more eager to share stories of regret with others than to talk about other negative emotions such as anger or shame. Opening up about regret—sometimes to a degree that is awkward at parties—seems to be a way of fostering “social closeness.”
Regret also reflects “in-group” vs. “out-group” biases. In reading about a texting-while-driving accident, Summerville says by way of example, you’re more likely to learn a lesson—“In the future, I personally intend to turn off my phone while I’m driving”—if the injured driver is a fellow Amherst grad than if they’re a Williams grad.
Immediately after an action, Summerville notes, we may experience “hot regret”—an acute wish that we hadn’t done it. In the long run, though, studies show that we tend to think more about things we haven’t done but wish we had, whether romantic connections we’ve missed or job opportunities we’ve passed up. To borrow from Robert Frost: we regret the many roads not taken.
If you get stuck repetitively ruing a past mistake, Summerville suggests it may be helpful to consult a therapist; such “ruminative regret” can be associated with anxiety and depression. It’s best to learn from regret and then move on, applying its lessons to the road ahead.