I met a man waiting for chemotherapy who had made a choice he regretted. He had been planning and saving for a trip with his family for many years. His doctor told him he should begin treatment immediately, but he felt that if he didn’t make that trip he would regret it for the rest of his life. He made the trip, and it was everything he had hoped. When he returned, the doctor told him that his disease had progressed to the point that a cure was unlikely.
Avoiding regret plays a big role in many of our decisions, and it should. We look ahead and worry about what we will feel when we look back.
Economists once thought of regret as a vague emotional problem rather than a part of normal decision-making. As a result, our economic models couldn’t explain what real people were doing in many situations. Then in 1982, a couple of economists, Graham Loomes and Robert Sugden, came up with what they called an “alternative theory of rational choice.” It was really just a trick that let them calculate how much regret people might feel. Trick or not, the result seemed to explain a lot of behaviour that economists had previously found inexplicable.
Economists had missed the way regret affects us, but popular culture hadn’t. Country and western songs ooze regret. Kris Kristofferson sings, “I’d rather be sorry for something I’ve done than for something that I didn’t do.” Marlon Brando's Academy Award for the 1954 movie On the Waterfront turns on the line, “I coulda been a contender.” In Casablanca, Rick says, “If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon, and for the rest of your life.”
Time travel movies make regrets the theme of high art. Think about Marty McFly in Back to the Future, the highest-grossing film of 1985. Or Terminator (1984), Peggy Sue Got Married (a movie nominated for three Academy Awards in 1986). Or Groundhog Day (1993), Twelve Monkeys (1995), Source Code (2011), Men in Black 3 (2012), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), or Edge of Tomorrow (2014). These are all about undoing decisions that someone regrets.
There are websites that describe the seven regrets that people have at the end of life. It’s interesting that the regrets are all pretty personal: “I regret I wasn’t nicer to people,” and “I regret I didn’t spend more time with my children.”
Failing to make a better world isn’t one of our more common regrets. Voting for Stephen Harper or Donald Trump, for example, didn’t produce a lot of regret, even though those votes stalled action on climate warming. The delay will certainly result in thousands – possible millions – of deaths before the end of this century. Even with so much at stake, hardly anyone personally regrets their part in our national mistakes and crimes.
We don’t feel regret about the big problems because we know that our private actions have a tiny effect on how quickly the world unravels. We are right to think that composting kitchen waste, turning down the water heater, and all sorts of tiny personal choices won’t slow climate change much, for example. No matter how many times were are told we can fight climate change by turning off a light, we know it will take dramatic action by the whole country.
Strange to say, the biggest roadblocks are mental. The technical and economic problems all have fairly obvious solutions. The biggest roadblock is that our politicians think we don’t want real action. The second biggest is that we don’t think politicians are ready. It is like one of those romantic comedies where would-be lovers won’t say ‘I love you’ because they think the other doesn’t want to hear it. Each is saying what they think the other wants to hear.
If just 10 per cent of us wrote to our MPs or MPPs to say we want the price on carbon quadrupled next year, politicians could act. Writing that letter seems such a small step, but it would be a giant step for mankind. It would change the game. Won’t you be sorry if you don’t write it?