People are haunted more by regrets about failing to chase their hopes, goals and aspirations than by about not fulfilling their duties and responsibilities, a study has found.

The research, published in the journal Emotion, builds on the idea that three elements make up a person’s sense of self: the actual, ideal and the ought selves.

The actual self is made up of the attributes a person believes they possess. The ideal self is the attributes they would ideally like to possess, such as hopes, goals, aspirations or wishes. The ought self is the person they feel they should have been based on duties, obligations and responsibilities.

Scientists from Cornell University in the US surveyed hundreds of participants through the course of six studies, describing the differences between the ought and ideal selves, and asking them to list and categorise their regrets based on these descriptions.

The participants said they experienced regrets about their ideal self far more often (72 per cent versus 28 per cent).

More than half mentioned more ideal-self regrets than ought-self regrets when asked to list their regrets in life so far. When asked to name their single biggest regret in life, 76 per cent of participants mentioned a regret about not fulfilling their ideal self.

The expectations of the ought self are usually more concrete and involve specific rules - such as how to behave at a funeral - and so are easier to fulfill. However, ideal-related regrets tend to be more general: Be a good parent, be a good mentor.

“There aren’t clear guideposts. And you can always do more,” said Tom Gilovich from Cornell.

The research has practical implications, Gilovich said. First, we often assume we first need inspiration before we can strive to achieve our ideals.

However, a significant amount of psychological research shows that’s not true, he said.

“Don’t wait around for inspiration, just plunge in. Waiting around for inspiration is an excuse. Inspiration arises from engaging in the activity,” he said.

People often fail to achieve their ideal goals because they are worried about how it will look to others. For example, a person might want to learn how to sing but feel they could never let others hear how bad they are.

“People are more charitable than we think and also don’t notice us nearly as much as we think,” he said.

“If that’s what holding you back - the fear of what other people will think and notice - then think a little more about just doing it,” he added.