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“Regrets can stem from love or work, but those stemming from the former seem to be the toughest to overcome,” Kellogg Professor Neal Roese and his co-authors write. “The need to belong is not just a fundamental human motive but a fundamental component of regret.”

Marketing Professor Neal Roese

No regrets?

Kellogg Professor Neal Roese finds that decisions about love inspire more regret than those related to work

By Jonathan Muller

2/9/2012 - It’s a story as old as time — having to make a decision about work or love, and being terrified to make the wrong choice.

A new study by Marketing Professor Neal Roese and his colleagues may offer some guidance to those facing such decisions. They found that regrets related to love are more intense than those involving work.

In a previous study, Roese found that romantic regrets are among the most common type of regret among Americans. His new study, with lead author Mike Morrison of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Kai Epstude of the University of Groningen, goes one step further and underscores the impact of social relationships.

“Social relationships, we suggest, are the most pivotal component of life regrets. Failed marriages, turbulent romances, and lost time with family may elicit regrets that last a lifetime,” Roese and his colleagues write.

Romantic regrets are intense because regrets of a social nature pose a threat to a person’s need to belong.

“Belonging, as a core human motive, powerfully connects to well-being and mental health,” the authors write.

The paper describes five experiments, the results of which all suggest that love or other decisions of a social nature, such as ending a relationship or being unfaithful, are more intense than those involving work or less-social decisions, such a dropping out of college or quitting a job. Roese and his co-authors found that:

  • Regrets involving romance or family (“love regrets”) were consistently rated as more intense than education or career regrets (“work regrets”). 
  • In the studies that compared high- and low-intensity regrets, love regrets were far more common than work regrets in the high-intensity category, sometimes outnumbering work regrets by more than 2 to 1 (56.4 percent to 19.9 percent). 
  • On balance, low-intensity regrets were equally likely to focus on love and work regrets. 
  • People rated their love and work regrets to be almost identical in terms of self-blame and importance. However, romantic regrets rated much higher when it came to social impact and threats to feelings of belonging.

“What our research makes clear is that, while regrets are multifaceted with diverse consequences, their social impact looms especially large,” the authors wrote. “Regrets can stem from love or work, but those stemming from the former seem to be the toughest to overcome. The need to belong is not just a fundamental human motive but a fundamental component of regret.”

The study, “Life Regrets and the Need to Belong,” will be published in an upcoming issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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