Regret minimization as life strategy

Regret minimization (technically regret minmax – minimize maximal regret) is a useful mental model for decision making.

Recently Tyler Cowen discussed it in an excellent interview The Complacent Class, Sex Robots, and Deathbed Regrets: A Conversation with Tyler Cowen (skip to 49:45, but the whole thing is recommended).

There is no transcript so here are my loose citation notes:

If you lived an “optimal” life there would be a lot of regret at the end of it.

Regret minimization is not the best life strategy.

Your deathbed perspective is not the best/most relevant metric of anything:

you perception is at lowest
your cognition is at lowest
your memory is the worst
you are not responsible for anything

Compare with Jeff Bezos’ decision strategy:

“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.”

The same model is cast in different light. I think Cowen and Bezos would actually mostly agree – “local” regret minimization is premature optimization.

  Cowen Bezos
Apparently says that regret min strategy is… bad good
which regret he means experiential self: real-time regret remembered self – regret at life end
does the utility of
death-bed-me matter
not much yes

The only thing, that is not quite reconciled is – how much should you take into account your “death-bed” personas preferences?

Which reminds me of a famous quote:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do

— apparently NOT Mark Twain

Psychology of happiness 2: If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right

Continuing the research notes from the previous post, here is a summary If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right by Elizabeth W. Dunn et al. The author re-published this research in the book Happy Money.

My main qualm about the paper is, that it does not differentiate between the remembering vs. experiencing self distinction, so the advises are a tangle of both.


  • you want to:
    1. extend anticipation before
    2. diminish adaptation during
      • by making events smaller but more frequent
      • by introducing some uncertainty
    3. Prefer experiences to material goods
      • more reminiscence after
      • less externalities/secondary costs
    4. Make everything social
      • spend prosocially
      • share experiences


(1) Buy more experiences and fewer material goods

  • Advantages:
    • more anticipation before event, less adaptation during, more reminiscing after
      • reasons:
        • material goods more prone to focalism: you actually don’t think about them very often and therefore don’t get that much utils/hedons
        • material goods usually have more secondary effects, externalities, upkeep costs
      • experiences DO suffer from focalism too: how often do you reminiscence about your vacations – not much, but more than about your fancy hardwood floor
    • negative experiences are easier to forget (or turn to humor)
    • experiences are more often social
  • note: remember the trade-off between remembering / experiencing self

(2) Use their money to benefit others rather than themselves

  • prosocial spending

(3) Buy many small pleasures rather than fewer large ones

  • less adaptation and diminishing marginal utility
  • due duration neglect, higher frequency > longer duration
  • splitting facilitates anticipation
  • Example: massage chair
    • customers got either 180s massage or 2x 80s
    • the split experience was rated higher
  • Exploiting uncertainty
    • having surprises / some uncertainty about the reward increases anticipation (you think about it more due to uncertainty)
    • also diminishes adaptation because you don’t know what’s next what’s

(4) Eschew extended warranties and other forms of overpriced insurance

  • exploit loss aversion and endowment effect

(5) Delay consumption

  • pay upfront to remove sting, delay consumption for anticipation

(6) Consider how peripheral features of their purchases may affect their day-to-day lives

  • especially material goods have upkeep costs, secondary effects & externalities

(7) Beware of comparison shopping

  • it focuses you of easily comparable features
  • e.g. picking a flat: lots of parameters on the web comparison, but you don’t e.g. how is the community, atmosphere etc.

(8) Follow the Herd Instead Of Your Head

  • general ranking is usually a good estimate of your enjoyment, no need to over think it