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Inducing Anticipated Regret and Ignoring Anticipated Guilt

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Aunt Millie was inevitably devoted to making good, and one of the few things I regret bitterly (as opposed to merely regretting) was that I never gave her enough credit for it. She had to bear the brunt of so much that I dared not reproach my father with. When I was young, I took her for granted; when I grew up, I despised her for her dowdiness and her simplicity; at her funeral ten years ago I had tears in my eyes, and perhaps that will gain me a slight remission on Judgment Day. But I shan’t have deserved it. (John Fowles, Daniel Martin, 1977)

Anticipated regret is part of a family of prospective emotions (fear, worry, concern), where retrospection is related to other backward-looking emotions (disappointment, dissatisfaction, frustration). Strikingly, though, both tend to promote a problem-solving state of mind: “It is telling that in both the anticipated regret and retrospective regret conditions, the action readiness items that assess withdrawal or apathy are low, whereas those related to understanding what happened and taking control are relatively high. This clearly shows the pragmatic character of regret” (Zeelenberg, 2018, p. 289). This differentiates both kinds of regret from guilt and shame, for example, where the action effects are all towards avoidance, withdrawal, stasis.

So, even if you feel paralysed by the extent of your unerasable retrospective regrets, there is the potential for anti-paralysis in them. And that potential can perhaps be realized by harnessing the anticipated kind and letting it strengthen your resolve.

How to make yourself more receptive to anticipated regret? The research suggests that if we’re trying to intervene in motivated decision-making, anticipated regret is a great place to start. With other motivational factors, you may need to do some serious work: to change the relevant attitudes, increase your personal perceptions of control, or alter your perceptions of important others’ behaviors, for example.

With anticipated regret, by contrast, you simply have to make it salient (Koch, 2014). As I touched on in Part 1, simple change of cognitive prompt to predict one’s feelings “after” rather than “about” casual sex, for instance, can do the trick: make you feel different, in a way that drives different behaviors. And in another study, merely inviting individuals to consider the regret they might feel in the coming weeks if they didn’t register as an organ donor increased both registration intentions and actual registration rates (O’Carroll, Dryden, et al., 2011; see also Koch, 2014, p. 405).

Future Orientation and the Importance of Mental Time Travel

The basic prerequisite for experiencing anticipated regret is the capacity to transport yourself mentally to the future, so one way to go is to seek out conditions that encourage temporal expansiveness, whether spaces with big horizons or scifi about distant galaxies or futures; see more suggestions in my post on zooming out, in connection with construal level theory, here.

You could also help yourself time-travel by having a conversation with someone who loves you about what their hopes and fears are for you (and for themselves as they relate to you). You could write a letter to your future self—the one who’s well or the one who isn’t. You could also write to your past self—the one who was ill or the one before illness—or from your future self who is well or isn’t to yourself now. It doesn’t take much—a sheet of paper and a prompt this simple—to start playing with these temporal layers and finding out what shifts.

Of course, anticipated regret is not a magic bullet. Nothing is, except doing the things that are inconsistent with continuing to have an eating disorder—which is not much like a bullet, either, rather a gradual and totally naturalistic cascade of magic. No emotion—however complex its infusions with the cognitive—can take on the entire edifice of an eating disorder single-handed. I recall for myself, and have heard from others, the strangeness of acknowledging that not even the thought of my parents dying before I get better is enough to make me fully commit. One wonders why not. One wonders why one continues to do the things that are, quite obviously, amassing regret upon regret for the future.

This is where having a plan for the behavioral follow-through comes in, so there’s something specific to say yes to. So not just writing that letter and expecting transformation to emerge in a vacuum, but writing it and following up, on the other side of the paper, with a detailed plan for what—inspired by the vehemence of this imagined future emotion—you’re going to do differently next week and why that.

Like everything, anticipated regret can be twisted to do harm rather than good. It tends to do this most often at the fairly micro-level, and at the end of the spectrum that’s actually—when you look closer—more about anticipating guilt than regret. These are the anticipations that keep the compulsions in charge: “I’ll regret not having gone out for this run later”, “How will I cope with the regret of having eaten this ice cream?” Fastforwarding like this is about attempting to spare oneself the short-term discomfort of having broken the restrictive rules, and it’s a poor proxy for the regret that really means something. Rather than being geared to avoiding regret, it’s about avoiding guilt grounded in a belief system that creates guilt where there needn’t be any.

Here again (as in Part 2 and Part 3) we may reflect on the oddity of anorexia and what’s required to recover from it. In the research on anticipated regret and healthy eating and exercise, anticipated regret tends to induce people to make “healthier” choices, but those “healthier” choices (choosing apple or banana over molasses waffle or chocolate bar [Weijzen, de Graaf, & Dijksterhuis, 2008]), swiping the gym card more often [Sandberg & Conner, 2011]) are with anorexia recovery a lot more likely to be problem than the solution.

Guilt vs Regret: The Timescale Matters

The idea that this captures regret (vs. guilt) fit with the fact that individuals “overpredicted the long-term regret that they experienced for choosing vice (e.g., enjoyment during spring break, a decadent chocolate cake) over virtue (e.g., work during spring break, a healthy fruit salad; Kivetz & Keinan, 2006). Eventually, time attenuated the guilt of indulgence but amplified the wistfulness of missing out on life’s pleasures” (Koch, 2014, p. 407). At shorter timescales, guilt avoidance wins out. At longer timescales, people care more about living fully than about being “healthy,” more about not missing out on the pleasures of “vice” than irreproachably choosing “virtue”.

At the wider scale of the life well lived, then, regret, not guilt, is what we try to leave ourselves free of. And how to free ourselves from the clutches of guilty short-termism? Perhaps what’s needed is to combine the scale of long-term with specificity we can really sink our imaginative teeth into. If loved-ones’ deaths are too implausible, maybe find something tinier to pin that imagined future too: the realization, in ten years’ time, that you’ve never once woken up in the morning to a first thought that wasn’t about food or exercise or your body. Or that you have, but only a tiny handful of times, and that there’s an awful ache at the thought of having only a handful more.

Anticipated regret can then lead into curiosity and the question of what you might wake thinking and feeling once you’re free of this. And curiosity is one of the world’s best encouragers of acting, today, in a way that’s different from how you acted yesterday.

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