Omission / Commission

August 5, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I haven’t checked XKCD’s data, but it seems right. Think of all the regrets in your life. Which do you have more of
  • things you didn’t do but wish you had
  • things you did do and wish you hadn’t
My graph would probably look like the one in the illustration – a skyscraper stack of sins of omission dwarfing a low bungalow of actions taken and forever regretted. How many times do we say, “If only I had . . .” compared with the times we say, “If only I hadn’t . . .”?

Psychologists probably have lots of explanations for this (is there a “psychology of regret” section in the APA?). The sociological explanation starts with norms. We all greatly overestimate the cost of breaking norms. “I couldn’t do that,” we think. But of course we could.

The power of the norm diminishes the farther we get from the actual situation. When Stanley Milgram asked his students to ask subway riders for their seats, he could not imagine that such a simple assignment would be so difficult. Milgram was speaking from the comfort of a seminar room miles from the city. When he actually went to the subway, he understood.

So when we think back on the norm not broken, the road (or kiss) not taken, we forget how it actually felt to be there.

The reality is that breaking these norms seldom results in anything more than temporary embarrassment, not the nagging regret that lingers for a lifetime.

Update (Aug. 7, 7:45 a.m.): The awesome Anomie has refined XKCD’s data by breaking it down by sex, comparing “kissed her” against “kissed him,”* and posting a more graphically sophisticated chart. For both sexes, regrets over inaction far outnumber regretted actions, but it looks as though the ratio is much higher for men.

*I assume, Katy Perry notwithstanding, that the “kissed her” regretters are male, and the “kissed him” regretters female.

1 comment:

Brad Wright said...

Very interesting--for me a lot of regrets are doing "x" when I now wish I had done "y"--or the opportunity costs of "x".