Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On the Epistemic Status of Deathbed Regrets

It's graduation time, so that means it's time to hear about what people do and do not regret on their death beds. Intended lesson: Pursue your dreams! Don't worry about money!

I can find no systematic research about what people on their deathbeds do in fact say that they regret. A PsycInfo database search of "death*" and "regret*" turns up this article as the closest thing. Evidently, what elderly East Germans most regret is having been victimized by war. There's also this inspiring pablum, widely discussed in the popular press.

Let's grant, however, that the commencement truisms have a prima facie plausibility. With their dying breaths, grandparents around the world say, "If only I had pursued my dreams and worried less about money!" Does their dying perspective give them wisdom? Does it matter that it's dying grandparents who are saying this rather than, say, 45-year-old parents or high school counselors or assistant managers at regional banks? The deathbed has rhetorical cache. Does it deserve it?

I'm reminded of the wisdom expressed by Zaphod Beeblebrox IV in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Summoned in a seance, he says that being dead "gives one such a wonderfully uncluttered perspective. Oh-ummm, we have a saying up here: 'life is wasted on the living'."

There's something to that, no doubt. Life is wasted on the living. But here's my worry: The dead and dying are suspiciously safe from the need of having to live by their own advice. If I'm 45 and I say, "Pursue your dreams! Don't worry about money!" I can be held to account for hypocrisy if I don't live that way myself. But am I really going to live that way? Potential victimization by my own advice might help me more vividly appreciate the risks and stress of chucking the day job. Deathbed grandpa might be forgetting those risks and stress in a grandiose, self-flagellating fantasy about the gap between what he was and what he might have been.

A smaller version of this same pattern occurs day by day and week by week: Looking back, I can always fantasize having been more energetic, more productive, having seized each day with more gusto. Great! That would have been better. But seizing every day with inexhaustible gusto is superhuman. I forget, maybe, how superhuman that would be.

Another source of deathbed distortion might be this: To the extent one's achievements are epistemic and risk-avoidant, their costs might be foolishly easy to regret. Due to hindsight bias, opportunities sacrificed and energy spent to prove something (for example, to prove to yourself that you could be successful in business or academia) or to avoid a risk that never materialized (such as the risk of having to depend on substantial financial savings in order not to lose one's home) can seem not to have been worth it: Of course you would have succeeded in business, of course you would have been fine without that extra money in the bank. On your deathbed, you might think you should have known these things all along -- but you shouldn't have. The future is harder to predict than the past.

I prefer the wisdom of 45-year-olds -- the ones in the middle of life, who gaze equally in both directions. Some 45-year-olds also think you should pursue your dreams (within reason) and not worry (too much) about money.


Neil said...

The point that the deathbed is not a privileged epistemic perspective is fair enough, but of course what we see with the wide circulation of death bed regrets is not entirely explicable by a kind of epistemic deference. That is, folk are not saying "well that kind of regret seems crazy to me, but I guess they know better". Rather, the dying are being used as a mouthpiece to express *our* (non deathbed) fantasies about what is worthwhile (after all, the regrets are (a) entirely banal, the stuff of folk wisdom, and (b) gathered entirely unsystematically, and therefore very much subject to the confirmation bias). Putting them in the mouths of the dying is just a way of emphasizing them. That said, I doubt the wisdom is really wise: it is fantasy.Lots of people fantasize about early retirement, giving up their jobs, etc, but there is good evidence that people value working, independently of the need for money. I suspect that it is not merely the fact that following one's dreams is potentially costly that prevents us - wisely - from doing so. It is also the fact that the dream is often a fantasy, which we entertain safe in the knowledge we never actually have to live it.

Easy for me to say, though: I can't think how I could possibly have a better life than the one I have!

Andy McKenzie said...

Hi, nice post! I've written about this briefly before: http://andymckenzie.blogspot.com/2010/11/our-regrets-change-over-time.html. Actually there is some research in shorter time scales on how our regrets change. Please post if you find a systematic account of regrets of people at various ages of their lives. I imagine accounting for survivorship bias could be tough.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Neil: I agree that commencement speakers and others wouldn't cite such (alleged) regrets if they didn't agree with them, but that still doesn't explain their rhetorical force. Compare other appeals to authority: We wouldn't use them if we didn't agree with them, but they're not rhetorically effective absent the background assumption of epistemic privilege, don't you think?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Cool post, Andy! I've submitted a comment on your site.

Christopher Hitchcock said...

Ditto for the old saw about the absence of atheists in foxholes.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...


clasqm said...

As an immortal character in the old "Highlander" TV show once said, "You are all dying. Six months, ten years, what's the difference?"

Is there a reason why a regret uttered on the deathbed should be awarded a higher truth value than one just a day earlier? If so, where does the cut-off arise, i.e. exactly where does this mysterious stage called "deathbed" commence? When the doctor admits that there's no hope left? When the family discreetly starts making funeral arrangements?

In fact, it seems that "deathbed" is actually one of those cases where time is counted backwards: "He was never to arise from that bed again". Ah, but you don't know that until the process is complete, so you are actually taking it from the time of death and working your way back. Which means that deathbed regrets are only identifiable as such in retrospect and can't be clearly identified at the time they are made. Even the regretter cannot be absolutely sure there might not be a miracle reprieve on the way. If the reprieve occurs, does the regret's status also change from deathbed to common-or-garden regret?

And what about those of us denied the opportunity of a deathbed? If I utter a regret and a sniper takes me out a second later, does that automatically raise it to deathbed status? The only difference between me and the person on the deathbed is that my awareness of my mortality is somewhat distant, while his is more ... existential, shall we say. Even so, how would that affect the truth-value of the regret itself?

If I say that I regret not having seduced the red-haired girl back in high school, is that not equally true whether I say it now or in thirty years time in a hospital ward? Equal rights for all regret-statements, I say! Regrets of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but ... well, you have nothing to lose, actually.

A more clearly identifiable category would be something like "late-life regrets" which could be defined as "regrets uttered by a person in the 90th percentile of his or her expected lifespan in that time and place." Now that is something we could work with. If, in a given place and time, you can reaqsonably expect to live to be 80, any regrets uttered after you turn 72 are given a special, enhanced status. Just what that status is remains to be negotiated and may be affected by empirical observations, so make them good ones.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Delicious comment, Clasqm!

Unknown said...

If I take your age and round it to the nearest 5...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

If in 20 years I think 65-year-olds are wisest, then we can draw a rather suspicious regression line.

Gregg Williams said...

It's very difficult for me not to be angry with anyone who finds the essay at http://www.inspirationandchai.com/Regrets-of-the-Dying.html to be "pablum." You either didn't read the text under each headline, or you're so far away from wisdom that you're content to make fun of it.

Take, for example, the following: By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.

If your life is full of debt and/or ever-more-pointless possessions, the previous advice is something that can transform your life. It also hints at the value of simplicity, and it invites you to reconsider your ideas on the source of happiness.

I invite anyone who agrees with this blog post to reconsider their dismissal of deathbed wisdom.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

From the OED: "Pablum, n. A proprietary name for: a wheat-based children's breakfast cereal. Hence more widely: soft, easily digested food; (fig.) insipid or undemanding intellectual fare."

N.B.: Doesn't mean false. The very same claims can be scrutinized rigorously, considering objections and difficulties; they can be given precise content with which reasonable people might disagree even if broadly sympathetic in principle. Then they wouldn't be pablum.