Regret, there is a lot of talk about it and at the very least we know it has something to do with the past. Its important though, not to confuse regret with its cousin, hindsight bias.
What is Hindsight Bias?
In other words, its knowing what I know now, now that I have acquired superior information through not by my own merit, but by the passage of time, I would like to go back to the past to make some adjustments.
Of course that’s science fiction. There’s always going to be information asymmetry as no one can predict the future with a 100% degree of accuracy. So that’s not real regret. Hindsight is:
- If I had known no one was going to that house party, I coulda gone on a road trip with my friends.
- My job doesn’t live up to the expectations it was given, I shoulda accepted the other job offer but now that position is filled.
- Had it been known that bitcoin would shoot to the moon, I woulda put my life savings in it back in the early 2010’s.
What is Regret?
As this is hindsight bias, what is regret then? Well regret is knowing in retrospect that at that the time of the activity or opportunity, you had all the information you need and you were physically capable of seizing the initiative but you sat on your hands and did nothing. You were paralyzed by indecision, fear, laziness or whatever else was running through your mind.
You had the tools to get things done, but you didn’t.
The reason why hindsight bias and regret so often get muddied is because we humans like to reflect our lives onto others. An example,
How many times have you asked someone you know if they are hungry and want to eat X or if they wanted to do Y activity not because you think its in their best interest, but because you want to do something and want to see if others will go along with it?
It’s human nature.
There is a problem with reflecting your life onto others and thinking your solution fits them. Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, gives the most concrete example. If your friend is having trouble seeing, would you take off your glasses and hand it to him/her and expect they can see?
Of course not, odds are you two have a different prescription. So Stephen Covey gives his solution, be empathetic. That is, you understand the other person’s problems, put yourself in there shoes, before making a decision.
Deciphering Between Hindsight Bias and Regret
So how do you distinguish between hindsight bias and regret?
Well you use that empathy of seeing things from the other person’s perspective with yourself, yes you see your past self as a different person.
You remove all the superior information you have now. Think like your 15, 20, 25 year old self. Be objective, be honest. Were you able to act on said subjective at the time of the occurrence?
If yes, it is regret
If no it is hindsight bias
Me as an example, my desire to be a wallflower and fear of expressing my thoughts have yielded 3 childhood regrets.
- Not telling my 12 year old crush I had a crush on her.
- Not asking a girl to go with me to my high school prom (I’ve recently learned that there is a thing called an ‘adult prom’ so this is solvable. And if any of the lovely ladies reading this would like to go next Spring, I’m game 😊)
- Not displaying my talents in a high school talent show. (Solved. Last December I showed my kungfu skills to Bangkok schoolkids in their talent show when I was a TEFL teacher in Thailand)
To wrap this up, the quicker you can distinguish between hindsight bias and regret, the quicker you can find a resolution/reconciliation. Of course it’s better to have no (potential) regrets in the first place and not get crippled by ‘what ifs.’ But that is a topic for a different discussion.
Kingston S. Lim
June 3, 2020
Mexico City, Mexico
About Kingston’s Journey Series: Kingston’s Journey is a lifelong series. This is the travel journal I take with me. Whether you have questions such as how to change my life or how to travel the world, I think you’ll find value in the life lessons I’ve experienced and documented in this travel notebook. They may serve as travel inspiration for you. In Chinese, there is a saying, “讀萬卷書,不如行千里路.”
This means, instead of reading ten thousand books, why don’t you walk a thousand miles. This is my inspiration to travel every nation (or as many as possible) in my pursuit of my global MBA by learning as much as possible and recording these life lessons learned only by travel. In the end, I think the achievement of dreams, personal growth & aspirations out there through travel and adventure will lead to a more fulfilling life. Living and experiencing the “now” is how I’ll make my life a great memory in the future.