Science journalist Robin Marantz Henig is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. Her next book, co-authored with her daughter Samantha Henig, is called Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? and will be out in November.
Is regret something you accumulate in your life, piling it up as you remember an ever-increasing number of things that really could have gone better? If so, you’d think that young people would have fewer regrets than older ones, since they haven’t lived as long and haven’t missed as many chances—and if they have missed a chance at some adventure or relationship, they’re more likely to think that the chance will come around again.
But a recent study by Stefanie Brassen and her colleagues at University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany suggests that young people feel more regret than old people, largely because the older people seem to be quashing those nasty feelings before the feelings overtake them. Indeed, they found that the only 60-somethings who experienced regret at the same level as 20-somethings were those who were depressed.
I think it’s worth considering, though, whether the German investigators really were tapping into regret at all, or a different aspect of youth psychology.
Brassen and her colleagues simulated regret by having her subjects play a Let’s Make a Deal-type computer game in which they opened a succession of boxes to earn cash. They could keep opening boxes and keep accumulating cash as long as they stopped before they opened the box containing a pop-out devil. If they got to the devil, the game was over and they had to give back everything they’d earned in that round.
The researchers were less interested in how many boxes the subjects opened than in how they felt about the chances they missed. After the round was over, the investigators revealed the contents of the unopened boxes. The more boxes the subjects could have opened before getting to the devil, the more regret they were expected to feel, since they could have earned even more money if they’d been just a little more daring.