Often it’s the things we didn’t do that we regret the most – not the things we did do but shouldn’t have. And when we take risks in life, often it’s because we realize that sometimes it’s worse to not do something and then regret what we missed out on than to do something and realize it was a mistake.
Many of life’s decisions come with this delicate balance. We don’t want to make mistakes and do things that are overly risky, but we don’t want to miss out on opportunities either. Psychologists have taken note of how people weigh this tradeoff, and some researchers have suggested a close relationship between feelings of regret and risky decision making.
An example of research exploring the link between the two comes from a study just published in Cognition & Emotion. In the study, researchers from the UK had children, adolescents and adults complete a risky decision-making task where they received feedback about missed opportunities.
The researchers found that experiencing regret over missed opportunities was associated with riskier decision making but that the relationship between regret and appetite for risk changed with people’s age.
In children, experiencing regret correlated with riskier decision making, but not until eight years of age. Moreover, children who were more able to explicitly recognize that they were experiencing regret also tended to make riskier decisions in response to missed opportunities.
While the connection between missed opportunities and risk taking first showed up at eight years, it became stronger with age. The researchers found that it was adults most of all, more than children or teens, who responded to missed opportunities by taking risks.
These results indicate that as people age, they become more likely to react to regret by taking risks to avoid missing out on opportunities. In a way, it could be that the ability to calibrate our level of risk-taking in response to regret is a life skill we acquire with age. Whatever the reason though, it’s clear that regret, missed opportunities and risk taking are all related and that this relationship becomes stronger as we go through life.