When a Northwestern University professor sought out what the typical American regrets the most, he didn't expect the answer would be love. "We had expected education to be the number one regret, because that is what previous studies had shown," Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, tells Shine.
Instead, Roese and co-author Mike Morrison, found that romance is our biggest 'if only'. In the newly released study, researchers culled results of a telephone survey where 370 adult Americans were asked to describe their biggest regret, including when it happened and whether it was the result of action or inaction. 18 percent of those surveyed cited a romantic regret, ahead of both family and education.
"In finding that romance was the number one regret, we found something that resonates with a lot of cultural expectations," says Roese. "Americans cherish the idea of love conquering all and we feel an especially harsh sting when it doesn't work out."
Roese also attributes pop culture's constant romantic cues as reminders of what we've lost out on. Thanks to shows like the "The Bachelor" (the show we love to hate and can't turn off) and the perpetual onslaught of romantic comedies, we're more likely to wince at the way we were in a relationship...or weren't.
Those surveyed talked of both active and inactive romantic regrets. "Some wished that problem, breakup, or divorce could be avoided, or that the breakup could have happened sooner so as to have ended the suffering earlier." Others spoke of missed opportunities and the "one that got away."
Again, see "The Bachelor", where exit interviews are riddled with the comment "maybe I just wasn't open enough." Not doing enough, or inactive regrets, can leave longer lasting pangs, according to another study on the subject. Researchers found that in the short term we're more likely to be sorry for the way we acted, but over the long haul we tend to bemoan the things we didn't do.
Women are particularly susceptible to the sting of both types of regret-according to Roese's research, 44% reported romance regrets compared to 19% percent of men. "We think it is a reflection of longstanding cultural norm that women have traditionally been the fixers of family troubles, the ones who smooth over ruffled feathers," says Roese. "As a result, the goal of preserving social relationships is stronger for women than men."
But all that self-reflection doesn't have to be a bad thing.
"Regret is like a flag going up," explains Roese who found in another study that people used it as a vehicle for change. "As psychologists, we think people perceive negative emotions as bad experiences, but the truth is that people appreciate the power of negative emotions as well as positive ones."
Those negative emotions can really come in handy. "Regret exists because it is useful," writes clinical psychologist Dr. Todd B. Kashdan in an essay on Psychology Today. "When we feel regret, when we feel guilty and embarrassed by what we do, we are motivated to undo any wrongful things we did and make better, more careful decisions in the future." Like for example, not ordering the garlic and spinach pasta dish on date one, or not agreeing to date one, or not going back on "The Bachelor" for a second season. Not everyone learns from their mistakes.
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