About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Regret is in your brain

My latest column for Skeptical Inquirer is about the neurobiology of regret. In it I discuss experiments published earlier this year that show a clear distinction between disappointment and regret, and provide us with new insights onto the relationship between rational thinking and emotions.

The researchers had hypothesized that the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain should be involved in experiencing the emotion of regret, since it is known to be connected to both planning and emotional responses. They therefore proceeded to compare the response of normal individuals to those of people with damaged orbitofrontal cortex when exposed to gambling situations. The results were clear: normal subjects experience both disappointment and regret when they are told that they did not do well, even if they actually won something, but could have won more. This is the human curse of counterfactual thinking, the cognitive ability to imagine – and emotionally feel – alternative outcomes. The orbitofrontal patients, however, were incapable of experiencing regret, though they were still disappointed by negative outcomes: their disconnect between rational and emotional circuits hampered their counterfactual thinking.

Well, what's wrong with being unable to feel negative emotions generated by imagining outcomes that didn't occur? Isn't this a source of much human unhappiness after all? Perhaps, but the researchers also showed that the ability for feeling the counterfactual scenarios actually helps normal individuals to play their odds carefully: their control subjects regularly outperformed the orbitofrontal patients at gambling. It is the (projected) fear of losing big that keeps most of us from betting our shirts when we should wear them instead.


  1. REGRET not having more children. I do not ever wish that I had more education or money, just two or three kids that I could enjoy as much as the three that I already have! Seriously.

    What do you chalk that up to, M? Pure female irrationality or just religious psychosomatic sorts of issues? ;)


  2. No, Cal, to a deeply-rooted fear of learning...

  3. kimpat,
    What is the good of learning if one has no precious young ones to share what he/she may happen to know with?

    and who was the fool who suggested that one can't have both?


  4. Call me Tony, Cal.
    I don't have any children, but I enjoy learning anything and everything, from trivia such as the fact that Peruvian balsam comes from El Salvador to serious science, like evolutionary biology.
    As to the "fool who suggested you can't have both", who was it who wrote "I do not ever wish that I had more education or money, just two or three kids..."?

  5. Tony,
    And while one is learning, good reading comprehension can clear up quite a few misunderstandings too, I think.

    key word being, "MORE education or money"

    I love to dialogue with my teens. You know, share stuff that I think about "stuff" and generally hear what they think in return. And most times they don't seem to mind. And sometimes they actually seem to carry the info with them and utilize whatever it is. Other times, my oldest daughter, “Savannah” who tends to tell a person what she REALLY THINKS, says that if I was about to "lecture" another person, (lets say, one of her friends) they would probably find it considerably easier to do what it was that I wished for them to do in the first place, instead of going through the 45 minute lecture! :)

    AND THAT’S WHY I think kids are so precious. Who else will tell you the truth, when no one else will?!! ;)

    Seriously. Life is so much richer, and multi-dimensional sharing it with your off-spring. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

  6. If you don't desire MORE education, then either you think you know it all, Cal, or you don't value leqarning very highly.

  7. I would like more everything! Am I greedy? More Kids! more Eduction!, More Money!

    All ways up for more learning and a better understanding of how thing work and what I can do to better my Kids Life.

  8. Sometimes we forgot that we were once also childs... and if i'm alive and writing this is because our parents did not think as we do now :p

    About REGRET, I see emotion and reason as a continuum. They are the same thing but in different levels of development and they can also be intertwined. How much they are continuum and intertwined depends on the physical condition.
    Experiment this :)

  9. Enough children, please... There's too many people in the world already.

    Whomever wants some more, go adopt.

    And while I do love kids, specially the littlelest ones (and they seem to like me a lot too), and might one day consider getting me or or two, I'm not the type of animal who can't overcome my mammal instincts... Eating and reproducing as goals of life, I'm striving for more than that. And I don't regret :O) (hey, I managed to get something related to the issue in the post, at least)


  10. "If you don't desire MORE education, then either you think you know it all, Cal, or you don't value leqarning very highly."

    I have nothing particularly against formal education. However, keep in mind that certain types of education and experience can also harden a person to a great degree. Do you understand what I mean by this? And I would think that we each should all REGRET very much it if we were to become hardened persons. I have met some people who have literally seen and learned so much that nothing is a thrill any longer. Sometimes I have felt a bit in danger of this myself.

    The antidote:
    Take a little niece or nephew to the science museum or something equally as interesting, and that boredom just flies right out the window!! :)

    All in all, it was never all about "self" in the first place.


  11. J:"Enough children, please... There's too many people in the world already.

    Ah...the grinch, I presume? ;)

    "Whomever wants some more, go adopt."

    Been giving that a great deal of consideration.

    MY HUSBAND, however, has been going through a little selfish phase for about 48yrs. ;) Actually, he says he wants to take me on trips with him when he leaves the country and whatnot, and he seems to think that another little batch of kids may interfere with that. I think we could accommodate both.

    I'm working on him. :)

    "I'm not the type of animal who can't overcome my mammal instincts... Eating and reproducing as goals of life, I'm striving for more than that."

    That's a secular canard, J.

    What is so meaningful about the 99 other things that you are striving for, that they could actually replace a precious human life? And ESPECIALLY ONE THAT LOOKS ALMOST LIKE YOU!!?

    If you don't come to understand this, when you are 60, 70, 80 you will live to REGRET it. Do you really think that those are the things that people beg for on their death bed? No they are not. They are begging for the people that they loved, and those that cared for them.

    without meaningful relationships we are just dust and chemistry..


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.