Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
T.S.Eliot Burnt Norton
Eliot, who was born 125 years ago this week, and thus merits remembrance, was a master of regret. The sparse, well-chosen and well placed words say it all. This brief addendum is only about the implications for psychology. In more prosaic terms: Life is not a pure experimental design.
As Stephen Hawking put it: “It seems that there is a Chronology Protection Agency which prevents the appearance of closed time-like curves and so makes the universe safe for historians.” We cannot live two lives in parallel so as to judge which is the better one, and then return to the point of choice. We cannot wind back life, nor judge what we would have been like if we had been spared the errors, mischances, hazards, losses and defeats of our particular lives. Lives are ipsative, in the sense that one has to chose one thing or another, and then a door closes. Opportunity cost, the economists call it.
For that very reason, popular scepticism about psychological research is in some ways well founded: group results apply to us all, but only partly. We still retain the ability to make choices and note, if only in retrospect, how those choices have changed our lives.
For example, most of us are the product of choices. Two adults made a decision, and we are the result. Those adults chose our food, clothes, books, and schools. We were not entirely passive, and sometimes spat out the food, rejected the clothes, ignored the books, and ran away from school. Nonetheless, choices were made for us in our early lives, until we started making choices for ourselves. Thereafter, “the terrible ifs” accumulate: there are the “if then” ifs, and the “if only” ifs. Forced and not so forced choices begin to determine our fate.
This presents behavioural science with a dilemma: it cannot be a true science, if by that is meant a fully experimental science, with random allocation to living conditions. Hence the interest in natural experiments: looking at life before and after the raising of the Iron Curtain; first generation immigrants versus the second generation; measuring crime in towns which did and did not receive television broadcasts; comparing the effects of different health services, different diets, and different patterns of breast feeding.
These natural experiments help us understand the causes of group differences, but they probably don’t satisfy the personal need to look back on crucial life choices. Possibly only identical twins can do that. They can see how, despite being as similar as it is possible to be, certain extraneous events can have a big influence. Perhaps the answer to Eliot’s dilemma is to study discrepancies between identical twins.
Or one could just continue regretting things.