Does it matter if you regret it? Using negative experience to open the door to the future

(This report is provided by Professor Huey-Jiuan Chen’s research team in the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling)

From childhood, we were taught to strive for a life without regrets, but in reality, things often go against our wishes. Since regret is a common feeling, what is the thing we regret most in life? According to Western studies, the most regretful thing is, surprisingly, education, ranking much higher than career, love, upbringing, and security (Streep & Bernstein, 2015). Fries et al. (2005) also found that regardless of whether they had clear academic goals or not, as many as 90% of students reported experiencing confusion and conflict over course selection, which had a profound impact on their cognitive experiences and academic emotion. In view of this, this study used a stratified convenience sampling to recruit 516 college students (241 males and 275 females) from public and private universities in Taiwan to fill out anonymous questionnaires, and conducted quantitative analysis to find that: 1. The stronger college students' regret about their course selection, the more serious the interference in their motivation for the selected courses 2. When college students experience course selection regret, they adopt a rumination strategy. The degree of academic motivation interference at this time can be completely determined by the 'rumination strategy.' 3. If college students adopt the “future-focused cognitive reappraisal” strategy, the influence of regret on motivational interference decreases. 4. Information provision and rational instruction do not have a significant moderating effect on the relationship between regret and motivational interference, but high levels of perceived emotional support have a moderating effect, indicating that the emotional support of significant others affects the motivational interference of college students. The overall findings of this study suggest that the negative emotions generated by regret, although not conducive to the short-term experience of a good life, can send a warning in the process of self-evolution. Therefore, instead of avoiding regrets, it is better to make regrets a part of our life with a calm mind. In an environment of empathy and acceptance, students will be guided to 'learn to face their regrets' and find strengths in them, transforming negative emotions into adaptive growth nutrients and opening a bright and colorful door to their future studies.

Regret refers to reactions after a decision is made. The results did not meet expectations because counterfactual comparisons and a sense of self-responsibility trigger anger, distress and anxiety, self-criticism, and attempts to eliminate the event (Breugelmans, et al., 2014), adversely affecting performance on subsequent tasks (Liao, et al., 2016; Roese et al., 2009). Carmon and Ariely (2000) found that the psychological tendency often focuses on abandoned or missed options rather than on the resources that are already available. Therefore, in a higher education environment that emphasizes self-directed learning, regretting course selection can be a common and negative experience for college students that can deplete their cognitive resources (Gao et al., 2014). It can lead to distractions, low persistence, or bad moods that can impair self-management motivational interference.

Lazarus and Folkman (1984) proposed psychological stress and coping theory, which suggests that stress and response are interactively related so that coping strategies are the key factor in transforming frustrating experiences into growth motivation. In this study, in addition to extending Gilovich and Medvec's (1995) approach to psychological recovery from regression, retaining the 'rumination' strategy of repeatedly and continuously discussing unsatisfactory outcomes and frustrations, we also referred to Yi Cheng and Yi-Cheng Lin's (2016) regressive response strategies and further differentiated the cognitive reappraisals strategies into two types according to the point in time when the benefits were discovered. The first strategy is present-focused cognitive reappraisal, which emphasizes learners' attempts to find strengths from their chosen courses and integrate course content with their personal careers or interests to enhance their adaptation level. The second strategy is future-focused cognitive reappraisal, which emphasizes how to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future, increases self-awareness and opportunities for future improvement, and compares the direction and intensity of the impact of the above three strategies on regrets and interruptions in academic motivation.

Regret is a strong negative emotional experience as described in previous literature. Whether college students complain repeatedly or adopt a benefit-seeking cognitive reappraisals strategy, a perceived strong support system should help to mitigate the negative consequences of regrettable events. Demaray et al. (2005) found that adolescents tend to seek different sources of perceived social support for different events. Based on this, the present study departs from the previous examples of treating perceived social support as a single composite measure. This study collected empirical data from two perspectives, perceived emotional support and instrumental message support, to clarify the conditional mechanisms of the relationship between regret and motivational interference. The main findings are described as follows.

First, in terms of intrinsic resources, learners who adopt 'regurgitated thinking' strategies can be trapped in self-blame and denial, and focus on nagging past mistakes that can fully determine the degree of impact on motivational interference; a 'present-focused cognitive reappraisal' strategy has no effect on the effectiveness of regretting the prediction of motivational interference. However, adopting a 'future-focused cognitive reappraisal' strategy can suppress the degree of threat of regrets on motivational interference. Thus, when college students experience course regrets, counseling them to immediately focus on 'finding the benefits in the course they have chosen' is less effective in terms of reducing motivational interference than giving them an opportunity to settle their emotions and encouraging them to look forward to further opportunities to improve and adjust their actions in the future.

Second, in terms of external resources, overall perceived social support and message provision alone could not moderate the effect of regret on motivational disruption, but higher levels of perceived emotional support could moderate the strength of the positive association between regret and motivational disruption. The results of this study led the research team to reflect on the fact that most people unknowingly play the role of 'smooth-worshiping' ideological believers, and generally consider regret as an unpleasant experience of failure. They therefore discipline themselves not to regret as much as possible, or even insist on never regretting in order to maintain self-esteem. The data from this study showed that the regurgitated thinking strategy is positively correlated with motivational interference, suggesting that when college students face regrets about their course selection, they tend to feel anxious and find excuses if pursuing the belief that regretting is not beneficial, making it difficult to focus on the task at hand, and even increasing academic avoidance behaviors. This type of reaction belongs to the 'depletion mode,' which is a painful abyss of repentance and 'destruction' (Jamieson, et al., 2018). However, the results of this study also found that cognitive reappraisal with a focus on discovering benefits can help optimize stressful experiences, assist learners to break out of their habitual catastrophic thinking patterns, and bring the focus back to healing through regret and refining through challenges, helping reduce motivational distractions and facilitate life adaptation, which is in line with Dweck's belief in the power of the 'Growth Model.'

Since regret is a common experience in the decision-making process, instead of rejecting or delaying decisions, we should encourage college students to learn to savor regret and make the most of negative energy to develop an empowered growth mindset. It is also useful to practice the role of listening to significant others, rather than being so eager to give 'advice' when the learner is deep in a gloomy emotion valley. The acceptance of regrettable experiences and the effective implementation of positive focus is valuable mental capital. In particular, as the wave of digital technology drives the rapid dissemination of information, college students are faced with the conflict of multiple choices and competitive motives, and the threat of feeling physically and emotionally depleted will increase day by day. Therefore, it is timely and expected to explore the response and subsequent impact of regret in the field of education.

陳慧娟、簡洧晴(2020)。大學生選課後悔與動機干擾研究:檢驗後悔因應策略的中介效果與社會支持的調節效果。教育科學研究期刊,65 (2),277-312。
(Effect of Regret on Motivational Interference Among College Students: Regret Coping Strategy as a Mediator and Social Support as a Moderator)

Huey-Jiuan Chen Associate Professor | Department of Educational Psychology and CounselingDr. Chen is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling at National Taiwan Normal University. Her research interests include social relationships (family, school, and peers) and adolescent adjustment and psychological assets, learning motivation and academic achievement, teaching commitment and taste ability in relation to well-being, and balanced time perspective and mindfulness research, etc. She was awarded the Teaching Excellence Award by National Taiwan Normal University in 2014 and 2019. In recent years, she has been particularly committed to linking academic research and teaching practice, and has actively proposed constructive strategies to calm teachers' minds and bodies, promote teaching effectiveness, and create well-being for youth based on the results of empirical data analysis.