Other People’s Failures Make You Feel Better About Your Own

This study is composed of two experiments that explore the fact that adults, when faced with a situation that carries regret or guilt, tend to suffer from a negative state of mind. When in this negative state, if they are given examples of how someone else has made a worse mistake that led to a deeper regret, these adults may feel better about themselves. Results from both studies showed that if these mistakes or reasons for guilt were more irreversible, the participants tended to feel better if they heard of other’s regrets and guilt. This finding was unaffected by the severity of the mistake that led to the regret.

Studies and experience have shown that guilt and regret affect nearly 90% of adults, especially the elderly. Many people perceive these mistakes as irreparable and that leads to other problems involving the mind as well as the body. Strategies to understand ways to mitigate this guilt could be useful for these people. Earlier studies have shown that when a person is compared to someone who is better situated in life, he or she tends to become more ambitious towards reaching higher goals. And when he or she is exposed to stories of other people’s failures in life, these people tend to feel better about themselves. In the latter case, there is a rise in self-esteem and sense of well-being. Attempts to reverse a regretful situation may be perceived as effective or futile. This study tried to show that comparisons to someone less fortunate could improve a person’s sense of well-being. This was more so if he or she thought there was a high chance of recovering from the mistake.

* Experiment one included 104 adult participants who had at least one regret in their life. They were sent questionnaires to assess the severity of their guilt, whether it was reversible and how it compared to people who were their peers.
* The participant’s mental well-being was also assessed using questionnaires.
* Experiment two involved 51 adults who had at least one regret in their lives. They were asked similar questions as in experiment one.
* In addition, they were asked if they suffered from cold and flu like symptoms like fever, runny nose, sore throat, etc.

Results/Key findings
* Results from experiment one showed that when a regret was perceived to be largely irreversible, a comparison with someone less fortunate led to a definite sense of well-being. The participant felt more positive in these situations.
* On the other hand, those who compared themselves to others who were doing better in life had the poorest sense of well-being. This was seen more in those who thought their mistake was irreversible.
* Results from experiment two showed that those who were more educated were more positive.
* Results also showed that volunteers in the study who compared themselves to the less fortunate had lower symptoms of flu and cold.

Next steps/Shortcomings
Authors admit that their study does not explore the goals towards which their participants are working. They suggest future studies that note the move towards achieving goals in these situations. Another finding in this study is that when people thought their mistake was irreversible, they felt better on comparisons with the less fortunate; however, the negative effect of this comparison in people who thought their mistake was reversible was not studied. Also, future studies need to explore the ill effects of these regrets in detail, write the authors.

This study shows that even guilt that is perceived to be irreversible can be mitigated by comparing with someone less fortunate. Also, symptoms of cold are reduced when these comparisons are made. This means that such comparisons could possibly protect the mental, as well as the physical, health of the individual with the regret or guilt. An interesting finding is that while such a comparison leads to a more positive outlook, a reverse comparison with someone more fortunate does not evoke negative feelings, but these people had a poor sense of well-being. Authors suggest that this could have implications among the elderly. When faced with regrets, if such comparisons are made, they may live longer, be less depressed, and suffer less from ailments and pain. Also, in adults, this type of regret-mitigating comparison may allow for sound sleep as well as more exercise, thus leading to better health consequences.

For More Information:
Making Up for Lost Opportunities: Comparing One’s Own Regrets to Another’s Who is Less Fortunate as a Way of Coping
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2011
By Isabelle Bauer; Carsten Wrosch
From Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Toronto, Canada, and Concordia University, Montreal, Canada


*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.
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