TLDR: Counterintuitively, people think they’d regret a foolish action more than a foolish inaction (in the short run), but it’s actually the other way around (in the long run).
From the book “Stumbling on Happiness” by Dan Gilbert:
Consider these two scenarios:
- You own shares in Company A. During the past year, you considered switching to stock in Company B but decide against it. You now find that you would have been better off by $1,200 if you switched. (regret from inaction)
- You own shares in Company C. During the past year, you switched to Company D. You now find that you would have been better off by $1,200 if you kept your stock in Company C. (regret from action)
Studies show that 9 of 10 people expect to feel more regret when they foolishly switch stocks than when they foolish fail to switch stocks, because people think they will regret foolish actions more than foolish inactions. But studies also show that 9 out of 10 people are wrong. Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did, which is why the most popular regrets include not going to college, not grasping profitable business opportunities, and not spending enough time with family and friends.
But why do people regret more inactions than actions? One reason is that psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inactions than actions. When our action causes us to accept a marriage proposal from someone who later becomes an axe murder, we can console ourselves by thinking of all the things we learned from the experience (“Collecting hatchets is not a healthy hobby”). But when our inaction causes us to reject a marriage proposal from someone who later becomes a movie star, we can’t console ourselves by thinking of all the things we learned from the experience because … well, there wasn’t one.
The irony is all too clear: Because we don’t realize that our psychological immune systems can rationalize an excess of courage more easily than an excess of cowardice, we hedge our bets when we should blunder forward.
Lesson learned: Most people have to make decisions with incomplete data about the future all the time. You’re better off making the decision and then recovering from failure, than to be paralyzed by fear and take no action. This reminds me of the “regret minimization framework” from Jeff Bezos, and of the top regrets of the dying.
This is just one of the gems (of many) from the book “Stumbling on Happiness” by Dan Gilbert.