By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
Does anticipating regret increase protective actions and reduce risky behaviors?
Regrets happen when you find out, or imagine, that the results would’ve been better if you had made a different decision. What behaviors are you doing today that you may regret in the future? What positive, healthy, activities did you leave undone today that in the future you will wish you had done?
Thinking about the positive advantages of exercise and a healthy diet doesn’t seem to be enough to get many people to engage in these activities. Thinking about the regrets you will have in the future provides additional motivation to do proactive healthy behaviors and to reduce risky behaviors. People who think about the regrets they will have in the morning after casual sex are more likely to alter their behavioral plans.
Will you regret not protecting your health?
People who have thought about the need to maintain good health and could anticipate the regrets they will have in later life for not protecting their health are more likely to make the effort to eat a healthy diet.
We all know that getting more exercise would benefit our health. Being able to anticipate the regrets you will have about your appearance and your health in the future because of not exercising increases the chances that you will exercise today to avoid those painful regrets in the future. It takes a long time for regrets about not protecting your help to develop. People go through life not exercising or eating a healthy diet, telling themselves there’s always time to start healthy living tomorrow. The regrets take up a lot of your time when you’re older and out of time to have lived a healthy life.
There has been a lot of controversies recently about vaccination. Regardless of how you feel about getting your family members vaccinated, it’s important to think about the regrets you might have if you fail to get vaccinated. The larger regret is not that you might catch the flu, but that because you did not get vaccinated, you might transmit an infection to a baby, young child, or an older adult. Thinking about the possible regrets of infecting others might be just the motivation you need to get yourself vaccinated.
Will you regret not helping others?
When you’re busy with your life, you’re likely to forget about donating blood or designating yourself as an organ donor. Thinking about possible regrets you might have because you didn’t donate blood and someone died may motivate you to make that donation.
Will you regret risky sexual behaviors?
Recent research tells us that the possibility of regretting unsafe sexual behaviors has strongly influenced some people’s sexual practices. Thinking beforehand about the possible regretted consequences of unprotected sex, both from contracting sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies increase the chances someone will use protection or abstain.
Will you regret your use or abuse of nicotine, marijuana, alcohol, or other drugs?
Prevention efforts around alcohol consumption and drug use have been generally disappointing. Having people think about drinking or drug use is unlikely to reduce the risk they will consume substances. One promising prevention effort has been having people think about possible regrets. Are there things you might do while drunk or high that you would later regret? As you grow older, raise your children and live your life, will you regret having abused drugs or becoming addicted to them?
Knowing that tobacco consumption is hazardous to your health is almost universal. That hasn’t been enough to keep most young people from trying cigarettes or other products containing nicotine. One promising approach has been asking people early in the nicotine using experience about possible, anticipated regrets. Thinking about health risks off in the future is not much of a deterrent. Thinking about the anticipated regrets from having contracted emphysema, heart disease, or cancer offers a different perspective.
Thinking about anticipated regrets from binge drinking has been shown to reduce the rates of intending to binge drink (Cooke, Sniehotta, & Schuz, 2007). There has been limited recent research on whether anticipated regrets related to substance use changes behavior. What little research there has been, shows that anticipating future regrets increases the intent to avoid or stop using substances.
Will you regret not keeping yourself safe?
In the spur of the moment, it’s easy to ignore the risks from taking a phone call or answering a text while driving. Take a moment to think about how you will feel if your distraction results in an accident and someone loses their life.
When we don’t think about risks, they don’t alter our behavior. Considering possible risks in life and anticipating the regrets you will have from engaging in risky behaviors and neglecting to engage in healthy ones may help you put the way you are living your life in perspective.
Why doesn’t anticipating regrets change behaviors?
People who drive dangerously, speed, or weave in and out of lanes, report they would have severe regrets if that behavior resulted in an accident. Unfortunately, in the moment, the urge to get somewhere more rapidly and the excitement of the speed, outweigh the anticipated regrets of a potential accident. Excitement and pleasure also offset the anticipated regrets from alcohol and drug use.
Any behaviors whose consequences will happen far in the future, such as poor health behaviors, tend to remain unchanged because people tell themselves that they will begin living in a healthy manner in the future.
Potential regrets from risky sexual practices respond poorly to potential regrets when people tell themselves that it will not happen to them, but sex will be less enjoyable when they use protection or that stopping for protection will ruin the spontaneity.
Stop and ask yourself what things you are doing today you regret in the future. Consider the things you’re not doing now which will be major sources of regret as you get older. The more aware you become of anticipatory regrets more likely you will be to change your current behavior.
The things you may be regretting now may be very different from the things you will regret in the future. You might want to look at the things that older people say with their biggest regrets in life which were described in the post – Top 6 life regrets.
You find more about this topic under Regret.
David Joel Miller MS is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC.) Mr. Miller provides supervision for beginning counselors and therapists and teaches at the local college in the Substance Abuse Counseling program.
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