When I asked a group of people a few weeks ago what they wished they’d done differently, I wanted them to name their regret.
One person, a woman, was succinct. “I wish I had found one friend to be my ‘best friend forever’,” she said.
My interviewees, rich and poor, tall and short, Protestant and Catholic, pug-faced and prominent, were all fuming at the time, too.
Sometimes it feels that every past experience comes back to haunt us.
But I’ve found an unexpected and wonderful explanation for why these things weigh so heavily. I heard it during my research. It’s been found in numerous studies by cognitive scientists who have been studying the most common errors people make in everyday life.
The moral hazard experiments
In 2010, researchers looked at the results of cognitive errors people make that showed up when they overestimated or underestimated their own own risk of harm.
They tried to replicate the experiments with a third group of experiment subjects, who asked “How much risk are you willing to take in order to get an easy grade at work?”.
The results showed that the group of very smart people made slightly worse mistakes than the average person.
This was both true in the lab and true in a series of hundred-strong pizza delivery parties in busy, randomly arranged places.
Risks changed in the room
The other experiment had a third group of people in one room and the other group in a different room.
When the pizza delivery group made a mistake, they got lower grades than expected. When the pizza delivery group completed a complex task, they got higher grades than expected.
This experiment revealed three basic mistakes that people make.
The first is a “mental inflation” mistake, which suggests that when they are working on a task, they assume that they are as efficient or fast at it as they actually are.
Often they expect to complete an incomplete task in less time than they actually do.
When researchers gave people some mistakes and a reminder that some people make mistakes, they made more mistakes. People were slower and more inefficient when reminded they had made mistakes, perhaps because they think that no one will ever make mistakes that they can accept.
The second mistake was described by psychologist Clive Carnegie as the “myth of risk” error.
People feel it is dangerous to make small mistakes.
When made to think about the perceived risk of making a small mistake, they simply choose to do something less risky and act not at all as they normally would.
This made Carnegie think of the now familiar myth of risk.
Philosophers have identified more than 30 ways people think about risk.
The most extreme – “all risks are risk” – suggests that there are no risks worth taking.
Philosophers on the other hand have said that there are risks, the difference between accepting risks and not taking risks, the difference between risky and desirable actions, and the difference between risky and desirable actions.
Making the switch
So which of these is it? We don’t know the answer, but we know that choosing to live with a risky trait can lead to stress, anxiety, anxiety-induced illnesses, depression, diet or addiction and unrealistic expectations of how we could control our decisions.
I want to tell you about the third error because it feels unique to psychologists.
The second one about faulty risk perception and the first one about weak risk perception and their cognitive consequences.
It is definitely a risk that we repeatedly make, that we feel it is dangerous to make mistakes, and that if we don’t try to control them it is crazy to not, and that our failure to fix it creates fear and anxiety.
We spend so much of our time in adult life making bad decisions and struggling to understand what they mean to us and how they affect us and our families.
It is time to learn to see and speak in these terms and to really engage in the process of learning from mistakes.
This is the solution for us: not to run away from mistakes but to face them and to recognise that they are coming back to haunt us.
Agapi Stassinopoulos is a writer and educator. Her new book, The Power Of Courage, is published by Harper Collins