Life Regrets Among Young Adults: The Role of Gender and Type of Regret

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Life Regrets Among Young Adults: The Role of Gender and Type of Regret
Yarry, Sarah
Bluck, Susan ( Mentor )
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Gainesville, Fla.
University of Florida
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Life Regrets Among Young Adults: The Role of Gender and Type of Regret

Sarah Yarry

"Regret is a common, possibly a universal, human experience" (Landman, 1987, p. 135). Every person

experiences regret at some point in his or her life. Regret is an important emotion to investigate because it is

one indicator of well-being (Diener, Lucas, Oishi, & Suh, 2002); an individual who is plagued with regret is unlikely

to have high life satisfaction.


Counterfactual Thinking and Life Regrets

Regret has both cognitive and emotional components (Landman, 1987). It is a negative emotion linked to the

past that is "cognitively determined" (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995). The experience of regret is based on feelings about

a past judgment. The current study focuses on two central elements of regret: level of felt regret and reversibility

of regret. Felt regret is the nature and intensity of an individual's experience of regret, globally or in components:

hot (embarrassed, angry, and irritated emotions), wistful (contemplative, sentimental, and nostalgic emotions),

and despairing (helpless, sorrowful, and desperate emotions) (Gilovich, Medvec, & Kahneman, 1995;

Kahneman, 1998). One purpose of this study was to explore ways in which these three regret types vary

across people and situations.

We also examined perceived reversibility of a regretted event (Seta, McElroy, & Seta, 2001), or the extent to

which people subjectively feel they could undo something they did or do something they regret not doing. The

level of reversibility should relate to felt regret. For instance, if an individual regrets playing with the car radio

just before causing a crash, that occurrence is highly irreversible and should correspond with a high level of

felt regret.


As stated earlier, regret plays a role in well-being. Thus, understanding and predicting who experiences regret

and when it occurs could have mental health applications.

Who experiences regret: Gender

The role regret plays in everyday life may differ for men and women. We were interested in

whether gender influences the two previously named elements of regret: felt regret and

reversibility. Women may report higher levels of wistful and despairing regret because they

are socialized to express their emotions more freely than men (Lupton, 1998). The current research

also explores whether men or women more likely to see regretted events as reversible.

When does it occur: type of regret

People can regret both things done (actions) and things left undone inactionss). Much debate

centers around whether actions or inactions are regretted more frequently and strongly

(Feldman, Miyamoto, & Loftus, 1999; Gilovich & Medvec, 1995; Gilovich et al., 1998). We explore

whether levels of felt regret differ depending on whether one regrets an action or inaction. Based on

the findings of previous studies, actions may evoke more hot regret, and inactions may evoke

more wistful and despairing regret (Kahneman, 1995; Gilovich et al., 1998).

We also investigate differences in reversibility between actions and inactions. Inactions may be rated

as more reversible since it is easier to do something that has not been done than to undo something

that has already been done. For instance, if one regrets never learning to play the piano, it is easier to

do that in the future than to undo saying a rude statement.


In the current study, the following hypotheses are addressed. In regards to felt regret:

(a) Women will rate higher levels of global, hot, wistful, and despairing regret.

(b) Actions will evoke more hot regret, and inactions will evoke more wistful and despairing regret.

In regards to reversibility:

(a) Reversibility ratings will correlate with the global level of felt regret.

(b) Regrets high in reversibility will elicit hot emotions more strongly, whereas regrets low

in reversibility will elicit wistful and despairing regrets more strongly.

(c) Inactions will be rated as more reversible than actions.

(d) Do men or women rate regrets as more reversible?



Participants were 215 students from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, ranging from 20-59

years (M age = 24 years). Men composed 52.6% of the sample. Unfortunately, ethnicity was

not collected. As a substitute, the general student population at Concordia University identified

as Canadian (24%), Middle Eastern and South Asian (14%), Chinese (10%), European (10%),

Caucasian (5%), and other ethnic minorities (14%). Twenty-three percent did not list

ethnicity. Participants were recruited through undergraduate classes and paid $8.00 Canadian

for participation.


Regret Questionnaire. The Regret Questionnaire included questions concerning regretted actions

and inactions in the participants' lives. Only questions relevant to the current study are

discussed. Participants were asked to look back over their lives and briefly describe something

they regret having not done (inaction). Participants then rated the intensity of their global felt regret

and their levels of hot regret-related emotions, wistful regret-related emotions, and despairing

regret-related emotions on a 5-point scale (1 = not at all, 5 = very strongly) (Gilovich et al.,

1998). Participants were asked about the reversibility of the regretted inaction. That is, "You have

just been thinking about something you regret not having done in your life. How possible would it be

for you to do this thing now or at some later time?" Participants answered this question on a scale of 1

to 5 (1 = not possible, 5 = definitely possible).

Participants were also asked to describe a regretted action and rate how strongly they regretted

having done the item on a 5-point scale (global felt regret: 1 = not at all, 5 = very much).

Participants were then asked to rate how they felt about the regretted item in terms of hot, wistful,

and despairing regret-related emotions using the previously described scales. Finally, participants

were asked how possible it would be for them to undo their regretted action now or in the

future (reversibility). As before, participants provided ratings on a 5-point scale.


Regret Questionnaires were administered in groups as part of a larger study. There were three

versions of the Regret Questionnaire. Preliminary analyses suggested no differences in felt regret

across these experimental conditions; thus, the sample was treated as a whole. Regret

Questionnaires were counterbalanced for action and inaction.


Preliminary Analyses

Cronbach's Alpha determined scale reliabilities for the three types of felt regret. Hot (a = .77), wistful

(a = .77), and despairing (a = .82) regret formed reliable subscales.

Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) was employed to determine whether the three versions of the

Regret Questionnaire differed on global or the three types of felt regret. Felt regret ratings on global,

hot, wistful, and despairing regrets were combined across actions and inactions by taking the mean

of these ratings for this analysis. The experimental groups did not statistically differ on ratings of

felt regret, so the sample was treated as a whole in subsequent analyses.

Main Analyses

Felt regret. To test the hypothesis that women rate felt regret higher than men, a 2 (gender) x 2

(action, inaction) ANOVA for global, hot, wistful, and despairing regret was performed.

Repeated measures was used to control for multiple intercorrelated measures of regret (see Table

1). Levels of felt regret did not differ by gender, F (4, 166) = .16, MSE = .31, p = .96.

Table 1
Correlations Between Measures of Felt Regret

Type of Felt Regret 1 2 3

1. Global -- 0.19* 0.20*

2. Hot 0.19* -- 0.86*

3. Wistful 0.20* 0.86* --

4. Despairing 0.20* 0.89* 0.90*


This analysis was also used to test whether actions evoke more hot regret and inactions evoke

more wistful and despairing regret. Felt regret differed by whether the regret was an action or inaction,

F (4, 166) = 7.56MSE = 4.55, p < .001. Actions (M = 2.71, SD = 1.11) were rated higher on hot

regret (inaction, M = 1.24, SD = 3.41), F (1,183) = 25.19, MSE = 15.69, p < .001. However, there was

no difference between actions and inactions on ratings of global regret, wistful regret, or

despairing regret. Means and standard deviations are presented in Table 2. Additionally, there were

no interactions between gender and action/inaction.

Table 2
Mean ratings of felt regret by action and inaction

Type of Felt Regret

1. Global

Action Inaction


3.99 1.10 3.84 1.09

2. Hot 2.71 1.11 1.24 3.41

3. Wistful 2.47 0.95 1.50 3.49

4. Despairing 2.31 1.04 1.24 3.43

Reversibility. To test which gender is more likely to rate regrets as reversible, and whether inactions

are more likely to be rated as reversible than actions, a 2 (gender) _ 2 (action, inaction) ANOVA

was performed. Men and women rated regrets as equally reversible, F (1, 138) = .001, MSE = .003,

p < .97. As hypothesized, reversibility of actions (M = 2.27, SD = 1.57) were lower than inactions (M

= 3.27, SD = 1.64), F (1, 138) = 28.85, MSE = 69.39, p < .001. There was no interaction.

To examine whether ratings of a regret's reversibility is related to global regret or specific types of

felt regret, Pearson correlations by action and inaction were performed between reversibility and

global, hot, wistful, and despairing regret. Reversibility of action and inaction were treated

separately due to the previous finding of differences in reversibility ratings between actions

and inactions. Reversibility of actions was not related to ratings of global regret, r (173) = .04, p

= .64, hot regret, r (175) = .13, p = .08, wistful regret, r (175) = .03, p = .70, or despairing regret,

r (175) = .02, p = .75. Reversibility of inactions was negatively correlated with hot regret, r (164) =

-.19, p = .01, and despairing regret, r (164) = -.22, p < .01. Reversibility of inactions were not related

to global regret, r (164) = -.03, p = .75, or wistful regret r (164) = -.13, p = .10.


A person's feelings about the past can influence present well-being (Diener et al., 2002). An

individual cannot experience optimal life satisfaction if he or she is unhappy with past decisions.

The results from this research add to the growing body of literature on well-being over the

lifespan (Diener et al.).

Gender and regret

Our regret findings do not support theories of gender differences in emotional expressiveness (e.

g., Lupton, 1998). Young men and women did not differentially see regrets as reversible, or

experience types of regret to different extents.

Type of regret: Actions and inactions

We identified differences between regrets of actions and inactions, but only for hot regret. This

is consistent with the model of regret posed by Kahneman (1995) and Gilovich et al. (1998), who

found that regret of action showed higher ratings for hot regret than inactions. In the current

study, actions and inactions were rated similarly on global, wistful, and despairing regret. These

data differ from previous findings, which showed that wistful and despairing regret of inactions

were rated as more intense (Gilovich et al.).

As hypothesized, inactions were rated as more reversible than were actions. Additionally, hot

and despairing regrets of inactions were negatively related to reversibility. The reversibility of a

regret has no relation to global and wistful felt regret, either of actions or inactions. These findings

show that not all types of felt regret are moderated by the extent to which an individual could do or

undo the regretted item.


Young men and women experience regret in everyday life. Regret is not age or gender-based, but

occurs as a normative everyday emotion in response to life challenges and decisions.

Understanding regret offers one window to the experience of well-being. Future regret research

should identify additional predictors that help us understand well-being in younger adults and across

the lifespan, such as personality dimensions.


1. Diener, E., Lucas, R.E., Oishi, S., & Suh, E.M. (2002). Looking up and down: Weighting good and

bad information in life satisfaction judgments. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 437-445.

2. Feldman, J., Miyamoto, J., & Loftus, E.F. (1999). Are actions regretted more than

inactions? Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 78, 232-255.

3. Gilovich, T. & Medvec, V.H. (1995). The experience of regret: What, when, and why.

Psychological Review, 102, 379-395.

4. Landman, J. (1987). Regret: A theoretical and conceptual analysis. Journal for the Theory of

Social Behaviour, 17, 135-160.

5. Lupton, D. (1998). The 'emotional woman' and the 'unemotional man.' In The emotional self (pp.

105-136). London: SAGE Publications.

6. Seta, 3.3., McElroy, T., & Seta, C.E. (2001). To do or not to do: Desirability and consistency

mediate judgments of regret. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 861-870.


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