The feeling when you think that something you didn’t want to happen could have been prevented if you had acted differently.

You feel regret when you realize that something you have (or haven’t) done turned out badly1. You ‘kick’ yourself for having done it, and wish you could turn back time to do it differently. For example, you can regret your decision to move to another city, when it is not what you expected it to be. Furthermore, you can regret an inaction – a missed opportunity. For example, when you fail to muster the courage to talk to someone you are attracted to. Regret does not have to involve a deliberate decision, you can also regret not having paid enough attention to something, like when you accidentally send a sensitive email to the wrong person. You can even feel regret about something that you can’t really blame yourself for, like when you buy an expensive device and then find it on sale the next week.

When people are asked to think of which things they regret, they often first think of grave matters – such as regretting that they never had children or pursued a certain career2. However, there are also many smaller forms of regret that you can experience in everyday life – like regretting that you forgot to pick up milk and now have to go all the way back to the store.

Some actions you can regret almost instantly (such as sending an email to the wrong person), other things can take a long time and sometimes even a personal change before you regret them. For instance, some people may find stopping their education a good idea when they do it, but may regret it thirty years later, when they look back on their life.

The proverbial wisdom ‘It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ suggests that, when looking back, action is better than inaction. Indeed, researchers found that people generally feel more regret over missed opportunities than over made mistakes3. The main reason for this difference is that the consequences of a bad action are often clear and manageable, whereas the missed benefits of inaction can endlessly increase in the imagination of the regretful person. Secondly, bad actions can be (partially) corrected, while missed opportunities are often forever missed. For example, a woman who marries Mr. Wrong can get a divorce, but a woman who passed up Mr. Right must deal with the fact that he is no longer available.

In the comic, Murphy is asked to make an immediate decision about his future role in the company. Although he is not entirely sure, the marketing job seems the best choice. However, he almost immediately realizes he made the wrong choice – he now has to work for Patrick, whom he despises. His former assistant Neil gets the much better IT-job.

Movie clips


Typical expressions

“Oops, I shouldn’t have done that.”

“Why didn’t I say anything when the moment was right?”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Regret & Guilt

Regret and guilt are both a reaction to the bad consequences of something you did (or didn’t do) earlier, and both involve a desire to undo this thing. For example, if you make a hurtful remark to a good friend, you can both regret the remark and feel guilty about it. The first difference is that guilt is almost always about harming others, whereas regret more often applies to unfortunate things that happen to ourselves. Thus, you can deeply regret buying yourself shoes that are too small, but you can’t really feel guilty about it. Secondly, guilt often involves a moral factor that is not present in regret. You feel guilt after you have done morally bad things, like stealing or physically hurting someone. Thirdly, in the experience of guilt you think more about the harm that you have done to others (the consequence), whereas in regret you focus more on the decision or action that lead to the bad outcome.

Regret & Disappointment

Regret and disappointment are both emotions that you can feel when things do not turn out the way you wanted them. For example, when you have invested some money in a company that bankrupts, you can both regret your decision and be disappointed in the outcome. However, there are quite a few difference between them as well4. First of all, regret is always linked to your own (in)actions, whereas disappointment can also come up outside of your doing. Thus, you can be disappointed that your friend cancels a dinner date, but you can’t regret it. Secondly, in regret you have the strong urge to undo your action, precisely because you are (partly) responsible for what happened afterwards. In disappointment, you were more powerless over what happened, so you have more of a tendency to do nothing or get away from the situation.

Sources and further reading