“Purification” Through Regrets? I Don’t Think So

A reader wrote in the following about my article on the irrationality of regrets: “Regret is a hard-wired involuntary reaction to a mistake. I prefer to believe Mother Nature than your line of reasoning. Regret ‘purifies’ our decision-making.  A self-help book I read said that we mourn even if we lose one dollar. I agree — if I forget to record a TV program, I experience regret plus mourning. The human mind is highly sensitized to loss. Personally I do not believe people exist who have no regrets.”

Dr. Hurd’s reply: Your first error is reading self-help books. Most of the current crop tells us that our brain chemistry determines everything. All reasonable behavior (these faux experts claim) is due to brain chemicals being “in balance;” all unreasonable behavior is due to brain chemicals being “out of balance.” Of course, no defense is ever provided of what should be considered reasonable, unreasonable and why. It’s a circular, self-sustaining argument. I call it using biology as a religion.

This is the premise you uncritically accept when you insist that any human emotion is “hard-wired.” So you’re saying that if somebody doesn’t feel regret when you think they should, they’re lying because regrets are biologically determined and “hard-wired”? How do you know this? What’s interesting is that you don’t seem to feel that any proof is necessary or relevant. You failed to prove that emotions are nothing more than biological events, events that have nothing whatsoever to do with thoughts, ideas, beliefs, assumptions, premises or anything at all mental.

Anybody who mourns over losing a dollar, or forgetting to tape a TV program, is obsessive and overly anxious, or overly critical. Most people are not this bad, and the people who are this anxious stand out and annoy those who are less anxious. This doesn’t say much for your theory of “hard-wired” determinism. I realize that YOU might do this, that you might mourn the loss of a dollar, but you cannot project your problems with anxiety on to the rest of us — and declare a theory of human nature as a result of it. Not all of us are that obsessive.

It’s undoubtedly true that a lot of people experience regret. That was the whole point of my article — that regret doesn’t generally make any sense. Learning from the past is one thing, but there’s always a present in which to make corrections. And projecting your current needs and wants onto the past makes no sense at all.

Sometimes people like to hold onto their regrets. It’s a variation of holding onto the past. Many people — most people these days, I suspect — like to think of themselves as victims. It gives them a sense of comfort and rationalizes their inability or unwillingness to do anything about their current condition in life. Sometimes it’s not clear who to blame. Blaming “God,” the government, society, parents or family doesn’t quite do the trick, at least for some. What to do? Blame yourself — by feeling regrets. “I did such and such and now it’s too late. I ruined everything.” Now there’s an excuse wrapped in a cloak of self-responsibility if I ever heard one.

I don’t understand this idea that emotions have no causes. The ultimate extreme of this position is the idea that emotions are nothing more than biological impulses, or hard-wired. I don’t understand how a scientist could take this position, and I don’t understand why a layperson would want to do so. The only motive I can think of is a desire to acknowledge total helplessness over the content of one’s mind. To some, it’s somehow “easier” to simply say, “I can’t help it. It’s all hard-wired.” I guess this is just supernaturalism, twenty-first century style. How sad.

In an odd kind of way, regrets are the soothing effect to such people. “Leave me alone with my regrets. I like them.” If you ask me, living a dynamic life, including making changes as necessary, is a far superior way to be.