Woulda, coulda, shoulda: the haunting regret of failing our ideal selves

Forsaken dreams. Romantic interests not pursued. Securing a job near home rather than an adventurous position overseas.

Our most enduring regrets are the ones that stem from our failure to live up to our ideal selves, according to new Cornell research.

Psychologist Tom Gilovich and a former Cornell graduate student have found people are haunted more by regrets about failing to fulfill their hopes, goals and aspirations than by regrets about failing to fulfill their duties, obligations and responsibilities.

The research, “The Ideal Road Not Taken,” was published in the April issue of the journal Emotion. Gilovich’s co-author was Shai Davidai, Ph.D. ’15, now at The New School for Social Research.

“When we evaluate our lives, we think about whether we’re heading toward our ideal selves, becoming the person we’d like to be. Those are the regrets that are going to stick with you, because they are what you look at through the windshield of life,” said Gilovich, the Irene Blecker Rosenfeld Professor of Psychology. “The ‘ought’ regrets are potholes on the road. Those were problems, but now they’re behind you.

“To be sure, there are certain failures to live up to our ‘ought’ selves that are extremely painful and can haunt a person forever; so many great works of fiction draw upon precisely that fact. But for most people those types of regrets are far outnumbered by the ways in which they fall short of their ideal selves.”

The research builds on the idea that three elements make up a person’s sense of self: the actual, ideal and the ought selves. The actual self is made up of the attributes a person believes they possess. The ideal self is the attributes they would ideally like to possess, such as hopes, goals, aspirations or wishes. The ought self is the person they feel they should have been based on duties, obligations and responsibilities. “Your ought self could be, ‘I ought to be a person who is healthier and should go to the gym more,’” Gilovich said.

The paper also builds on Gilovich’s seminal 1990s research that found people tend to regret the things they hadn’t done rather than the things they had.

“In the short term, people regret their actions more than inactions,” he said. “But in the long term, the inaction regrets stick around longer.”

Building on those ideas, Gilovich and Davidai hypothesized that people’s most enduring regrets in life come from discrepancies between their actual and ideal selves.

“The failure to be your ideal self is usually an inaction,” said Gilovich. “It’s ‘I frittered away my time and never got around to teaching myself to code or play a musical instrument.’”

Gilovich and Davidai surveyed hundreds of participants through the course of six studies, describing the differences between the ought and ideal selves, and asking them to list and categorize their regrets based on these descriptions.

The participants said they experienced regrets about their ideal self far more often (72 percent versus 28 percent). More than half mentioned more ideal-self regrets than ought-self regrets when asked to list their regrets in life so far. And when asked to name their single biggest regret in life, 76 percent of participants mentioned a regret about not fulfilling their ideal self.

Why do ideal-self failures spark such enduring regret? “People are more likely to take active steps to rectify regrets related to their ought selves, so those regrets are more likely to be filed away as resolved and thereby seem less bothersome with time,” Gilovich said.

In addition, the expectations of the ought self are usually more concrete and involve specific rules – such as how to behave at a funeral – and so are easier to fulfill. But ideal-related regrets tend to be more general: Be a good parent, be a good mentor. “Well, what does that mean, really?” Gilovich said. “There aren’t clear guideposts. And you can always do more.”

The research has practical implications, he said. First, we often assume we first need inspiration before we can strive to achieve our ideals. But a significant amount of psychological research shows that’s not true, Gilovich said.

“As the Nike slogan says: ‘Just do it,’” he said. “Don’t wait around for inspiration, just plunge in. Waiting around for inspiration is an excuse. Inspiration arises from engaging in the activity.”

And people often fail to achieve their ideal goals because they’re worried about how it will look to others. For example, a person might want to learn how to sing but feel they could never let others hear how bad they are.

Again, Gilovich says, just do it.

“People are more charitable than we think and also don’t notice us nearly as much as we think,” he said. “If that’s what holding you back – the fear of what other people will think and notice – then think a little more about just doing it.”

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Jeff Tyson