Errors of Commission vs. Errors of Omission

by | Apr 25, 2019


Errors of commission are errors of action. You do something and it ends up being a mistake. For example, you go on a date with someone you didn’t really like and had a bad time, or worse, married someone and it didn’t end up working out.

Errors of omission are the opposite – you fail to take action and that ends up being a mistake. For example, you meet someone you are attracted to and like but never ask them on a date – looking back you wish you had asked them out but now they are in a relationship.

Which Do We Regret More?

An interesting question is what mistakes we regret more – our actions or inactions. “Two English Idioms suggest contrasting views: ‘Better safe than sorry‘ implies that an error of commission is graver than an error of omission, but ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained‘ suggests the opposite.” Source here.

Research over the past 40 or so years has found that both idioms are true because which type of error sparks the biggest regret shifts with time. Specifically, “actions produce greater regret in the short term; inactions generate more regret in the long run.” Source here.

For example, short-term regret of action is found in a study by Kahneman and Tversky from 1982 in which 92% of the participants thought that an investor who owned shares in Company X and sold his investment before the stock went up hugely would have greater regret than a person who seriously considered buying Company X stock but decided against it. The act of selling created bigger regret than not taking action. Many other studies confirm the short-term aversion to errors of commission.

On the other hand, many studies have found that when people are asked to look back on their lives and name their biggest regrets they much more commonly list things they didn’t do as their regrets.

Initially, regrettable actions may generate more counterfactual thoughts about “what might have been.” Over time, however, it may be those things people have failed to do that stand out and cause the most grief. Regrettable failures to act, in other words, may have a longer half-life than regrettable actions.

-Thomas Gilovich and Victoria Medvec: The Experience of Regreat: What, When and Why.

This creates a difficult situation for us humans. We worry more about making action mistakes in the short-term but its our inaction that looms large in our memories. What should we do? It is beneficial to recognize this inconsistency when making decisions.

Realize that action seems riskier than inaction right now, but later it is the inaction that likely will cause more regret.

If you like someone but are scared of asking her on a date because of the fear of rejection, realize that most likely years from now the regret of not asking her out will be super-sized.

Why Do Our Regret Perceptions Change Over Time?

Research on this topic has found that it’s complex – there is no simple answer as to why our perceptions of regret change. One of the leading theories is that the effect is due to “abstraction” vs. “concreteness.” Specifically, distant events (both in the future and past) are more abstract to us while near-term events are more concrete. As an example, “consider a person ringing a doorbell. This person’s behavior can be described either abstractly as ‘calling on a friend’ or concretely as ‘pushing a button.'” As time goes on, we don’t remember the concrete act of pushing the button, but we do tend to remember that we called on a friend. Source here.

Why does this distinction matter? Because errors of omission are usually more abstract. They are unfinished business and we don’t really know what would have happened. Our imagination kicks in and provides various outcomes. On the other hand, errors of commission are more concrete. You made the mistake. You know what happened. Committing to that single course of action “narrowed the field” of outcome and closed off all other avenues.

For example, staying with the asking on a date example: If you ask someone out and they say no it’s concrete. You hurt and feel stupid. But, years later you may not even remember it because that door closed. However, if you never asked her out your imagination can run wild: “we would have been so happy, we’d laugh and drink and go to the park and have kids . . . . ” These abstractions lead to great regret.

1 Comment

  1. Great entry, John!
    In my life I have found that I need to be careful about how I look at past choices because I found a tendency to put myself into the past with my present perspective – something I did not have then. I also found a tendency to overlook some of the things that I was facing back then. This came home to me when I had a chance to correct what I thought had been an error of omission from many years earlier. I discovered it was not an error after all and in fact, all the things that led me to not take action in the earlier epoch came back to me. Be careful not to judge your past self from your present or future self perspectives!


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