The Science of Regret: Looking Back and Letting Go

There's an emerging body of scientific literature that shows that as humans grow older, they tend to experience more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions like anger and regret.
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The coming of the new year gives each of us a chance to look back at what's happened to us over the last year and decide what we think about it. In other words, it's a time for regret -- think of Homer Simpson's "D'oh!" It's a time to look back and marvel at all of the screw ups (d'oh!) -- both personal and professional (d'oh! d'oh! d'oh!) -- that brought us to where we are today. Or to where we are not today.

A German study published earlier this year in Science magazine suggests that Homer Simpson will not age very well. He simply has not been able to disengage himself from his troubles, and according to researchers, that's what emotionally healthy aging is all about.

As the article explains, there's an emerging body of scientific literature that shows that as humans grow older, they tend to experience more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions like anger and regret. The feeling of regret depends on a sense of responsibility for an event, but healthy older individuals tend to disengage from a sense of personal control. Instead of saying "It was my fault, I screwed up," they say, "Screw it, it's not my fault." And they feel better for it!

Here's how the study worked. Study participants were presented with a row of eight boxes, seven containing a gold bar, and one containing a devil. They could start opening the boxes from the left, or from the right, but either way they had to open them in order and the position of the devil was random. They could stop anytime they felt like it and pocket their "winnings," but if they ran into the devil, they lost it all (D'oh!)

Yelling "D'oh!" is one measure of frustration and regret, but these researchers used a sophisticated MRI scanner to measure activity in the deep areas of the brain like the ventral striatum, which seems to code the value of experienced rewards but also that of missed opportunities.

The researchers collected volunteers from three groups -- young adults, depressed seniors, and emotionally-healthy seniors -- and had each of them play the game 80 times. Sometimes they stopped just in time -- the devil was in the very next box, and sometimes the devil was all the way at the end -- they stopped too early and missed out on a lot of phony loot!

What the researchers found was that the young adults and depressed seniors responded in very similar ways: When they stopped too early, their regret led them to play the next round more aggressively. And the more gold they missed out on, the more risk they took on the next round.

But healthy seniors were different. They seemed to let bygones be bygones. Yes, they were disappointed to run into the devil and lose, but the activity in the reward/regret centers of their brains seemed to be the same if they safely quit with three golds, when the devil was in the next box, of if they stopped at three golds but the devil was in the very last box. They didn't get ticked off or beat up on themselves for not having pushed on to win those four additional gold bars. They recognized that the position of the devil was random and out of their control.

The researchers came to similar conclusions when they tested a different group of volunteers, this time measuring things like heart rate and the skin sweat to try and hone in on how angry or regretful the participants were about their choices.

The new year reminds us that time moves on, and that we're all getting older. Even Dick Clark, the seemingly-immortal host of the Times Square New Year's festivities, drew the devil card earlier this year. Although none of us will live forever, we can grow old more gracefully by simply letting go, by saying "screw it" to the things that are beyond our control, what the researchers called "external attribution."

Of course, this is entirely different from shirking responsibility for things that are partially or fully under our control -- what some scientists (me at least) call "apathetic misattribution," "egocentric bunkering," or "mindlessly blaming others for your own troubles." To that end, as citizens of a gridlocked democracy, we might ask these same researchers to search for and study the responsibility/blame centers of the human brain.

For now, as a middle-aged parent, my primary coping mechanism for dealing with things out of my control is to blame the kids, or Flanders. If I'm going to be an emotionally-healthy senior, I know I'll have to let go of that.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.

For more by Craig Bowron, click here.