The role of the frontal lobes in the regulation of emotion-motivated behavior has long been known. Lobotomies are designed to cut off the forebrain, and the behavior change is dramatic (see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). A recent study published in the latest issue of Science used a gambling scenario to compare the behavior of normal people vs. those who had lesions in the orbitofrontal cortex.
Regret is an emotion related to “what if” – missed opportunities, mistakes. It is primarily associated with past events over which we had some level of control. The study compared “normal” people vs. those with lesions in the pre-frontal cortex in a gambling scenario. In one case, the subjects could choose the wager, and in the other, they could not. If normal subjects “lost” in a random gambling situation where they had no control, they felt no regret (nor much elation when they “won”). Where they had control, they reported experiencing negative and positive emotions associated with losing and winning, and changed their behavior to successfully promote winning.
People with lesions in the orbitofrontal cortex felt no different winning or losing in either scenario. They did not change their behavior, but placed the bets they could control without learning from past losses. They continued to lose. They had no sense of regret.
If wonder why some people never learn from their mistakes, there may be a wiring issue.
Camille et al., The Involvement of the Orbitofrontal Cortex in the Experience of Regret, Science 2004 304: 1167-1170
Here’s the abstract.