Realizing Regrets


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of Jake Stimpson.

Facing regrets seems so easy nowadays–especially since the feeling arises so immediately.

Log in to Instagram, notice an acquaintance’s striking shot of hiking down the sunny Grand Canyon, and regret not ever making it to the natural wonder yourself. A tab left, your Facebook timeline features snippets of those parties you couldn’t make it to over the weekend. Your Twitter feed, meanwhile, flashes a live flurry of what you’re missing out on now.

An instantaneous mental whirlwind of could haves, would haves, and should haves ignites all thanks to FOMO.

Perhaps the feeling of FOMO from social media exposure used to occur more at places like home, school, or work, where internet users had access to computers. But now with smartphones and ubiquitous data access, users may be vulnerable to FOMO at any given place they can log into their social media accounts.

“The fear of missing out is basically a function of regret,” Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, stated in a video segment.

Ariely continued to explain that an individual’s level of happiness is not only driven by evaluating current situations; one’s state of satisfaction also depends on gauging alternative realities for what could have happened.

When thoughts begin to steer down these paths of other possibilities that could have been better, that reaction may lead to regret and offset anxiety. Today, due to “online technologies like Facebook we can find out at any moment that we missed a wonderful” event, causing individuals to enter this mentality.

Ariely compared constant Facebook checking to a type of “insurance.” Browsers want to assure themselves that they are not missing out on anything at that moment.

For social media users who are vulnerable to FOMO and feeling regretful on a constant basis, Ariely encouraged limiting their browsing.

Of course, humans have faced regrets about their social lives long before social media platforms were developed and widely used–and well before FOMO was coined or acknowledged by society. Neal Roese, Professor of Marketing, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, comments on how regret has evolved given today’s digital engagement.

In the past, Roese explains, people who missed out on social or experiential situations would be subject to imagining or hearing stories about the events and feeling regretful.

Today, the “vividness of photographs showing everything that’s going on that you missed out on” causes “such a greater degree of emotional intensity that it’s much more salient on people’s minds.”

Roese is a well-acknowledged researcher who has published numerous studies about the emotion of regret. Much of his psychological research has evaluated counterfactual thinking, where humans weigh different alternatives to their past decisions and speculate on the consequences.

“Counterfactual thinking is more of a cognitive type of process where regret is more emotional–so they’re almost two sides of the same coin,” he confirms with BTR.

In Roese’s 2005 book, If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity, he wrote how regret and counterfactual thinking can actually be beneficial. When humans think of potential alternatives that could have occurred, that evaluation gives them perspective on their values and goals, therefore encouraging them to improve their lives.

Given the technological advancements since 2005 and the expansion of social media, BTR asks whether the theory he presented in If Only has altered in today’s atmosphere.

“I would say that the same basic pattern is going on but it’s been accelerated,” he responds, “so people have more access to information about what would have happened had they done something, and that feeds into a subsequent decision more rapidly and more intensely.”

He notes, however, that there is no “direct evidence to say that people are having richer social lives as a result of” constant counterfactual thinking from FOMO “to say that they learned well and they’re performing at a better or higher rate.”

What is Roese’s advice for perpetual FOMO sufferers?

“If you’re going to stay on social media and have the opportunity to do more social things, then go out,” he encourages. “If you’re not in the opportunity to go out, stop paying attention to social media, focus on your surroundings, and take a break from it.”