The Problem With The Regret Minimization Framework

The founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, once came up with a heuristic to make decisions called The Regret Minimization Framework — the idea is to project yourself into the future and look back on your decision from that perspective, to know what you should do. After Bezos popularized this idea, many writers have used it to explain (or rationalize) why you should choose certain behaviors over others.

The framework I found, which made the decision incredibly easy, was what I called-which only a nerd would call-a “regret minimization framework.” So I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, “Okay, now I’m looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have.” I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that that would haunt me every day, and so, when I thought about it that way it was an incredibly easy decision.

Jeff Bezos

To frame the Regret Minimization Framework as a commandment: choose to do something, which if you did not do, you would regret it when you’re 80, and looking back at your life.

It sounds like a great idea. But there are a few problems.

If you accept that you are morphing into a different person each stage of your life, with different tastes, knowledge, and goals, then how can you expect that your ideas when you are 80 are at all relevant to your life when you are younger?

It is more likely that the things that you wish you did at 80 may not reflect what you truly wish you did, but rather, what you happened to not do.

Regret is inevitable because of human psychology (the grass is always greener) rather than an objective measure of what you ought to do in the present.

If you spend your whole life working, you are more likely to wish you spent more time relaxing, than someone who spent their who life relaxing.

Hindsight bias explains why, when people make a great investment, they “knew it all along” or when they made a bad one, “they should have known better.” People are bad at being objective about their competence at making good decisions, so they deceive themselves by only telling good stories about themselves and leaving out the bad. There are many advantages to this form of self-deception — high self-esteem, motivation, and pride. All of which are important in careers, society, and mental health. But self-deception can also be pathological.

Sure, it is exciting to be bright-eyed, with hopes for a wonderful future-but in the case of self-deception, our exaggerated beliefs can devastate us when reality comes crashing in.

The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, Dan Ariely

Of course, hindsight bias is not a rule. It is possible to look back and objectively assess your decisions. Otherwise, you would never improve. So, I am not saying that each person is fundamentally dishonest all the time, but only that there is a tendency to be dishonest when looking back, and that there is no reason to presume, that at 80, you will have the ability to look back and avoid hindsight bias altogether. Not only do you not know who you will be later in life, but you have no reason to believe that you will be objective at that point.

When Bezos says, imagine you were 80, what does he mean exactly? Are you 80 with a full stomach or hungry? with good or bad health? In a world that is prosperous or regressive?

The absurdity of the intellectual exercise is this: who you will become changes the answer you can give to the question at this point in time. The answer to what you will regret at 80 is? It depends on what happens from now until then.

There is a neuroscientific experiment by Michael Gazzaniga that explains hindsight bias in a simple way (referenced in The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty).

Gazzaniga, a cognitive neuroscientist, describes the left brain as the “interpreter” (or the narrator). He came to this conclusion after many years of studying split-brain patients (people whose corpora callosa — a large bundle of nerves that connects the brain’s two hemispheres — had been cut). This brain abnormality means that these people can be given a stimulus to one half of the brain without the half knowing about it.

When working with a female patient who had this condition, Gazzaniga wanted to know what happens when you ask the right side of the brain to do something and the left side to give a reason for that action. He used a device with written instructions to the patient’s right hemisphere that told the woman to “laugh.” When the woman complied, he asked her why she laughed.

Of course, the woman did not know why she laughed, but she did not admit this. She made up a story and said, “You guys come up and test us every month. What a way to make a living!” she said. She apparently found cognitive neuroscientists to be pretty amusing.

This extreme case tells us a bit about how everyone behaves. We need explanations for why we do things and for the ways the world around us works — even when our explanations don’t have anything to do with reality.

The best way around the problem of the Regret Minimization Framework, is to avoid the illusion of projecting forward altogether, and to think: what do I already regret? At least that is a question you have an answer to.

Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.

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Sud Alogu

I write about ideas that matter to me. In other words, revolutionary.