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HRW Shift Summer Book Club: The Power of Regret

27.07.2022

No regrets. It’s a common tattoo and mantra for many people who want to seize the day. But what if regret wasn’t such a bad thing after all?

Earlier this year lots of us from the HRW Shift team watched best-selling author and excellent science communicator Dan Pink (author of ‘Drive: The Science of Motivation) speak at the behavioural science festival ‘Nudgestock’. In his session, he talked about his newest book: ‘The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward’ and our interest was piqued which led us to selecting this book for our 2022 summer book club.

Three overarching themes stood out to us from this book:

 

The Role of Negative Emotion

One of the first things that Pink tackles in the book is that regret isn’t a bad thing. He says it’s the 2nd most common human emotion (after love) and can be a positive thing. It felt like a provocative stance given it runs counter to much common wisdom and many popular social movements such as mindfulness that teaches us to live in the moment and let the past be the past.

However, he says regret has a function: it teaches us lessons and helps us make better choices next time we’re in a similar situation. He says ‘regret shows you what you value most’ and ‘provides the motivational force for change’. For example if you regret not being bold enough to tell someone how you feel about them once at university, the next time that opportunity comes up you’ll have the courage to do so. We particularly enjoyed how Pink communicated this point because we often are in the position of educating on the role of negative emotions in driving behaviour change for our clients (e.g. the role of fear, worry, or discomfort in helping to galvanise a population to change behaviour)

 

Effective Research Storytelling

Ultimately the core of the book is a review of two massive pieces of research that Pink and his team undertook: a qualitative global regret study, and a quantitative regret survey in the US. Since this was essentially a research report, the HRW shift team were in familiar territory. Doing two methods was really useful, qualitative allowed his team to collect and categorise the types of regrets people have and quant allowed analysis by demographics, e.g. age/race and further illuminated that regret is often related to opportunity. Pink’s approach to communicating his research results was a masterclass: he used testimony from the survey used very effectively using examples and quotes (with quotes voiced by actors in the audiobook version). This approach made us all think about our own regrets, which is a great signal of effective storytelling; blurring the line between the protagonist and the audience.

It was also, in classic Dan Pink fashion, a sterling example of science communication. He did well to use accessible language and define terms, for example differentiation regret vs disappointment: regret is when you feel as though you’re at fault. It comes from the inside out, so wishing you did something differently rather than wishing something different was done to you.

He pointed out challenges of researching regret well in a review of the historic research on regret, for example in historic research ‘education’ regrets most common but he notes that these populations were in university towns and were from WEIRD populations (western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic) so not fully representative of the spectrum of human regrets.

He clearly defined four different types of regrets: Connection, Boldness, Moral, and Foundation regrets. And for each type he explored examples and the underlying drivers of these regrets.  Foundation regrets around health behaviour (e.g., wishing you exercised more, wishing you didn’t drink/smoke so much, wishing you’d seen a doctor) really rung a bell for us as we see them day in and day out in the work that we do.

 

Linking Behavioural Science with a Clear Path of Action

One of the parts we enjoyed most about the book was how Pink was able to use research in behavioural science to explain some of the mechanisms behind each type of regret, as well as give advice about how to make the most out of regretful situations. Again, as members of a team who tie observations to behavioural science to make it more meaningful and give guidance on action, this element of the book resonated with us. He summarised some very familiar behavioural science themes and how they can either cause or help to mitigate the negative impacts of regret (satisficing, fundamental attribution error, and hyperbolic discounting), and also one of our favourite psychological phenomena, anticipated regret- where anticipating regret in the future actually causes psychological pain now.

In these sections the author summarised academic research well; especially studies around avoiding the sunk cost fallacy, studies on regret in children, and trials of interesting interventions (e.g. a regret raffle: where people were either entered into raffle if they completed survey or where everyone was entered into raffle and would only win the prize if they had completed survey).

Critically the value of connecting to behavioural science was to illuminate strategies to make the most of your feelings of regret to live a better life. Some of our favourites include running a ‘pre-mortem’ where everything goes wrong on an initiative and anticipating where problems are likely to arise to make a plan for counteracting them, as well as reframing regrets from ‘if only’ to ‘at least’ – for example rather than saying ‘if only I had never gotten together with my ex-husband’ you’d say ‘at least I have my beautiful son’.

We enjoyed it and only had a few minor critiques. For example. Pink builds up the opening of the book to make the slogan ‘no regrets’ provocative by saying that it suggests people are taking a carte blanche attitude to living (‘I am who I am, I’ve done what I’ve done, there’s no point in reflecting because it’s in the past and nothing changes that), but really we understand that most people who say ‘no regrets’ mean it to be that they’ve already learned the lessons and made the changes from past mistakes so accept that responsibility. We also felt he missed an opportunity to describe the ‘Simulation Heuristic’ from authors Kahneman and Tversky –this is a broader tendency to imagine the probability of an event by how easy it is to imagine; a process which surely leads people to over-estimate how likely it would be that they would become famous basketball players if only they hadn’t given up in the 7th grade.

Overall, this is a great summer read. It will challenge your thinking on the role of regret in life and if you don’t read it – you will regret not reading this book! Share your thoughts with us on twitter @HRWshift or via email shift@hrwhealthcare.com.

 

By the HRW Shift Team

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