How you feel about the future has a lot to do with how you feel about regret. People prone to rue paths not taken approach the unknown more cautiously than others, a new study has found. They’re less eager to know what the future holds, and more willing to hedge against risks they can’t predict.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin recently polled 2,000 people (pdf) on what they’d want to know about the future, given the opportunity. Other research suggests that generally, we’re a species that craves certainty and information. But in this study, the vast majority of respondents didn’t want to know when the worst was coming, like the time and manner of a partner’s death or their own, or the demise of a new marriage.
And surprisingly, many study participants also preferred ignorance to certainty on less dire topics. Given the chance to know for certain if there’s life after death, 50.4% of respondents would decline. Some 51.9% wouldn’t authenticate a sapphire they bought on vacation believing it was real, and 37.4% were content not to know a baby’s gender before birth.
There are practical reasons any of us might remain willfully ignorant on a subject that’s important to us: avoiding the pain of impending loss, not spoiling a happy surprise, maintaining impartiality or deniability. But fear of regret, the researchers found, plays a big part too.
The regret-prone tend to be risk averse. Part of risk aversion is something the researchers call anticipated regret. When people expect to feel bad about a negative outcome, they are more likely to alter their behavior to avoid that future discomfort—in other words, avoid risks.
You can’t anticipate regretting a choice if you don’t know the choice is coming. The more prone to risk aversion a respondent was, the more he or she was likely to opt for ignorance. Preference for ignorance became even stronger as an event approached: young regretful people were more willing to learn when and how they’d die than those of advanced years.
Respondents in this category, the researchers found, were also more likely to have optional insurance like legal and life policies. They prefer to take a small loss on premiums now, rather than regret a bigger one later.