Just how much sense regret makes? That’s a question that popped in my mind at like 4AM. Actually, that was the final question. The first question was: “Does something like real regret exists?”
And why regret seemed senseless to my mind at 4AM right after waking up out of the blue? Maybe because I was too drunk of sleep and couldn’t think straight? Maybe I was still in the dream land, where things don’t make much sense and logic is not really a must? Or maybe it’s because regret really doesn’t make sense?
A bit of everything, I’d say. But to be able to continue with this digression, some research was needed and some research I did. To start off, what exactly is regret?
Regret, according to the Oxford Dictionary Online, is defined as a verb meaning “feel sad, repentant, or disappointed over (something that one has done or failed to do)” or as a noun meaning “a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over an occurrence or something that one has done or failed to do”.
In other words, it’s a negative feeling caused by something that happened in the past. If you chose to eat pasta instead of lasagna you may regret for choosing pasta. If you didn’t eat neither pasta nor lasagna you may regret for not eating. Inaction is also a choice so if you regret for something you didn’t do, you’re regretting your choice for inaction.
But is regret really only that? When you feel regret, do you really feel only sadness, repent or disappointment? Don’t you feel blame? Don’t you feel psychological pain? Most important, does regret include the wonder of the outcome of the other option you had? Does it include the feeling that the other choice would’ve been better?
If regret includes the last two features, than I say that regret doesn’t make much sense.
Oxford Dictionary’s definition doesn’t include the desire to redo something in a different manner nor the wonder of how things could’ve been different had you chosen any other option. If we check other dictionaries, one included the wish for an alternative outcome, while others dictionaries keep in line with Oxford’s definition.
So, which definition is the correct one? Or maybe we should ask which one is the best one? To be honest, I have no idea which one is the correct nor the best one. But if I were to choose, I’d say that the desire to have chosen any other option is included. But if we do include, I also feel that it makes the idea of regret become a little more senseless. Why is that?
The reason is pretty simple, actually. You can’t know for sure the outcome of any of the other option, had you chosen them. You didn’t choose, so there’s no way to know for sure how it would had been. For instance, if someone says “I regret having done X” or “I regret not having done Y”, what does this actually mean? Does it also include the most likely follow-up “I wish I didn’t do X” or “I wish I did Y”? If it does, does the person who’s regretting knows that the other option would lead to a situation that is at least a little bit better than the one he/she is right now? I say no. The person does not know, simply because there’s no way to know. Unless you believe in the multiverse theory and believe that it’s somehow possible to travel between two different universes. Else, there’s no way to know. Ok, you may also argue that it’s possible if you believe that it’s possible to travel back in time to any point one wishes, but this time-travel would need to be done like it was portrayed in the Butterfly Effect movies instead of the Back to the Future movies. In other words, you’d need to travel back and “possess” your body somewhere in the past, somehow maintaining the knowledge you had (will have?) in the future. You can see how this doesn’t make much sense, right? If you were to build a time machine (better start saving for your DeLorean), you’d go back in time but there would be two of you and if you changed something, you’d create a new timeline, making it either impossible for you to return to your original timeline or to return to the timeline you just created. Or maybe you’re adept of the theory that the grandfather paradox can be solved by a quantum time machine?
Either way, none of these are true right now so there’s no way any of us can know if the other option was really better or not. Even if we could foresee the outcome, how can we actually measure its level of “betterness”?
In other words, if regret involves comparison, it doesn’t make sense. We can’t compare the known to the unknown. Can you compare the orange you buy at the local supermarket with the orange someone is selling at the corner of a street marked deep in the streets of a hidden city in the far KELT-2Ab (one of the two exoplanets found by the KELT telescope)?
No, you can’t. There’s no way for you to know how the orange from KELT-2Ab actually tastes like (nor if it actually exists, most likely not….unfortunately). What you can do is believe one is better than the other. So when someone wishes for the outcome of the other option, it’s based simply on the belief that the other option would yield a better result.
And how can this belief be formed? Well, regret is based on counter-factual thinking. Simply put, it’s thinking contrary to the facts. In other words, thinking about hypothetical situations that could have happened. “If only…” and “What if…” are two great examples of how counter-factual thinking begins. “If only I had chosen not to do X…”, “What if I had chosen to do Y?”. Continue these thoughts and you’ll be practicing counter-factual thinking. It’s the act of thinking about a course of action different of the one that actually occurred and it’s consequences. Some counter-factual thinking are easier to do (“If only I had not bought this chips I’d have money to take the bus”), while others may be a little bit harder because the chain of consequences are too long (“If only Henry Tandey had shot that soldier, WWII could’ve been prevented and the world would be a better place….or would it?”).
Either way, By doing this, you create an alternative possibility inside your imagination. And why would you believe in that alternative possibility? Well, maybe because it’ll be better than the one you’re currently living now (why would anyone regret not choosing the option that would lead to the worst result?) or maybe because since it’s an alternative that was created inside your mind, it’s pretty much yours and yours only creation, using only the tools you have available (that is, your own knowledge and experience) so maybe the IKEA effect is affecting you, making you love the result of your hard work?
And can you compare the known to what you believe it would be the known? Well….that’s a harder question but I think you can. How real is the product of your imagination? How real is the alternative reality that your mind created based on that one single choice from that one single moment in the past? Can you feel that world, just like you feel the world you’re living now? Maybe you can! Since most feelings and sensations are processed in your brain, why couldn’t your imagination trigger the parts of your brain responsible for these processes? As Pablo Picasso said: “Everything you can imagine is real.” If it’s real, it can excite your brain and cause it to respond. This response is the what we call “feel”. Or so I think.
Therefore, I’d have to conclude that yes, you can compare the known (your actual reality) with something that you believe would be known, had you done something different in the past (your counter-factual reality).
But all of this would be unnecessary if “regret” didn’t seem to naturally include the “wish for an alternative outcome”.