Erik Hansen is a graduate student pursuing a masters in public policy and Mustang Daily graduate columnist.

For those of you graduating this fall – and even those of you with some time left here at Cal Poly – college has probably not been strictly about learning inside the classroom. Rather, college has likely been about learning – and making mistakes – inside and outside of the classroom. As such, it is also likely that everyone donning a cap and gown at this fall’s commencement will be leaving Cal Poly with at least one regret, be it large or small, of an action taken, or an action not taken.

Moving on past the slightly awkward wording of that introduction (without any regrets), an unknown author once said: “When you can think of yesterday without regret and tomorrow without fear, you are near contentment.”

Fear and regret go together like Bert and Ernie, or Beavis and Butthead. While it would be nearly an impossible feat to summarize the psychology of fear in one column, we can try to emotionlessly rationalize regret, and in turn, get a better understanding of when we need to confront an irrational fear. By doing so, you will hopefully be on your way to walking into the next chapter of your life without fear, free of any regrets and near contentment.

Regret of Action vs. Regret of Inaction

A study was published this year in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal that looked at the differences between “action regrets” and “inaction regrets.” Perhaps the simplest way to decipher between the two types of regrets is that action regrets are things you wish you would not have done, and inaction regrets are things you wish you would have done.

For instance, an example of an action regret is telling yourself “Geeze, I wish I would not have gotten that DUI.” An example of an inaction regret is “Geeze, I wish I would have asked out George/Gina when I had the chance.”

The study surveyed a total of 370 adult American “respondents”, and found that of all of the respondents’ regrets, approximately half were action regrets (47.5 percent) and half were inaction regrets (52.5 percent). While this might not sound remarkable, differences began to emerge when the study started looking at how long regrets lasted, and how severe the regrets were.

Respondents were asked, “When did the event happen that made you feel regret?” with their response measured in days. Respondents were also asked about the severity of the regret, measured using a three-point scale:

  • 1: Mild– e.g. an argument with a spouse, a bad day at work
  • 2: Moderate – e.g. financial setback, more general dissatisfaction with one’s job
  • 3: Severe – e.g. divorce, death in the family

The study found that inaction regrets not only lasted significantly longer than action regrets, but inaction regrets were also associated with a significantly greater sense of severity than action regrets.

From an emotionless, rational perspective, you are more likely to hurt longer, and more severely, not acting on a well thought-out risk. Even if you end up being wrong and making a mistake, the regret you will feel from making that mistake will likely be less severe and last shorter than if you let fear paralyze you into inaction, missing out on an extraordinary opportunity.

Types of Regrets

A different study was published in 2005 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that looked at No. 1: a meta-analysis of surveys of regrets, and No. 2: the regrets of college students. The purpose of the study was to determine which domains in our life produce the greatest potential for regret. However, we can also use this data to see how regret changes over time; we can see how the regrets of a college student might change after they graduate (hopefully) and enter into the “general population.”

For the meta-analysis, nine published journal articles were examined, which contained a total of 11 data sets. All together, these data sets contained the input of 3,041 respondents, who provided a total of 4,054 distinct regrets. That is a lot of regret.

These 4,054 distinct regrets were then categorized into one of 12 “life domains.” The 12 domains included:

  1. Career: jobs, employment and earning a living
  2. Community: volunteer work and political activism
  3. Education: school, studying and getting good grades
  4. Parenting: interactions with offspring
  5. Family: interactions with parents and siblings
  6. Finance: decisions about money
  7. Friends: interactions with close others
  8. Health: exercise, diet and avoiding or treating illness
  9. Leisure: sports, recreation and hobbies
  10. Romance: love, sex, dating and marriage
  11. Spirituality: religion, philosophy and the meaning of life
  12. Self: improving oneself in terms of abilities and attitudes, behaviors

For the college students, a total of 34 undergraduate respondents (yes, 34; a disappointingly small sample size that I am going to overlook because I want to use the study for this column) described one, vivid regret from their college experience. These respondents were then asked to categorize their regret into one of the 12 life domains.

The five life domains with the most regrets, based on proportion of regrets, for college students and the general population are depicted in the chart above.

College Students

Meta-analysis (General Population)

Rank

Life Domain

Proportion (%)

Rank

Life Domain

Proportion (%)

1

Romance

26.7

1

Education

32.2

2

Friends

20.3

2

Career

22.3

3

Education

16.7

3

Romance

14.8

4

Leisure

10.0

4

Parenting

10.2

5

Self

10.0

5

Self

5.5

People continue to experience regrets in the life domains of education, romance and self after exiting college and entering into the general population; however, the friend and leisure regrets from college are replaced by career and parenting regrets.

Interestingly, while people experience the second-most regrets with friends while in college, that same life domain falls to 11th in the general population.

Not surprising, parenting was dead last (12th) for college students, while rising to fourth in the general population.

Again, from an emotionless, rational perspective, knowing which life domains people experience the most regret in can help us figure out which domains we should focus our actions on (remember, no inaction regrets). As you graduate, leave Cal Poly and enter into the general population, be ready to make new choices involving your career and (maybe even) parenting, realizing that these two domains might soon take on the same importance you once placed on friends and leisure while in college.

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