December 10, 2017 - London, UK

No regrets

A big red button

I have been reflecting on regrets for some time now and on the reasons for someone to regret something. Imagine the following scenario: Wife has a very stable job. She and the husband decide he should quit his job and dedicate three years exclusively to taking care of their newborn child. Husband quits his job. A week later against all odds wife loses her job. Now both are unemployed.

Should they regret their decision about the husband’s job? It certainly put them in a situation they would rather not be and having decided differently would have granted them a better condition now. Nonetheless, I argue that it is not rational to regret their decision.

The loss of the wife’s job was an unforeseeable event, it makes no sense for them to resent their failure to anticipate it. We must asses decisions based on the knowledge we had at the time of making the decision, not based on information we acquired afterwards. Obviously that if you know you know you may have insufficient information and have the resources to become more knowledgeable before making your decision, and still decides not to do that, you do have grounds to regret your failure to study your options better.

But in the case of the couple above, they did take into account the possibility of the wife losing her job, but considered it to be statistically insignificant. They weighed the facts and made their decision. There is no reason for them to second-guess their decision making ability. We constantly make statistical decisions and have to choose a compromise. I am less likely to die travelling by public transport than driving. However, the likelihood of me dying whilst driving responsibly is sufficiently small for my comfort requirements to outweigh my fear of death in this case. Therefore it is reasonable to choose the comfort of driving even though it is statistically more dangerous than the alternative.

In the end, my criterion for regrets is the following:

Did I make the best decision I could with the information I had available at the time?

If I did, there is no reason for regretting it, even if the outcome was unfortunate. There are more things outside of our control than we could ever know.

Obviously, don’t use this to justify lousy decision making! It is our duty to assess everything that is at stake, come up with possible alternatives, and have contingency plans for worse case scenarios. The more important the decision, the more elaborate and rigorous your reasoning must be. If you did all of that, treat new circumstances for what they are: new circumstances. Feeling guilty when you made a fine choice will only undermine your future decision making.

This more elaborate view of regrets allows me to better assessment my past choices, which leads to a more judicious improvement of my decision making process and greater confidence in my verdict (even when the outcome is unexpected). It also frees me from the undue emotional burden of irrational regrets, relieving my cognitive load and allowing for better future decisions.