What Might Have Been: The Social Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking

By Neal J. Roese; James M. Olson | Go to book overview

interaction between person factors and situational factors in counterfactual thinking.

Third, further research on individual differences in counterfactual thinking may shed some light on the distinction between immediate counterfactual thought in response to a particular event and a dispositional tendency to engage in counterfactual thought. That there is a difference between immediate counterfactuals and counterfactuals over the long term is suggested by recent research by Gilovich and Medvec ( 1993, chapter 9, this volume). They found that when looking back over their lives people are more likely to regret things that they did not do instead of things they did do. These findings contradict Landman's ( 1987) assertion that people are more likely to regret actions than inactions. Gilovich and Medvec suggest that the explanation for this discrepancy is that regret follows a systematic time course. That is, actions cause more pain in the short term, but inactions are regretted more in the long term.

Fourth, future researchers should explore in more depth the relation between different types of counterfactual thinking and actual health outcomes. So far, only educated guesses can be made, based on relations with other personality characteristics. Future research should examine the daily lives of individuals to determine how the propensity to engage in counterfactual thought moderates the stress-illness relationship.

Finally, the findings that we have discussed suggest that the way in which counterfactual thinking is measured affects not only how much counterfactual thinking participants report, but also how counterfactual responses are related to other variables. Specifically, participants reported more counterfactual thoughts when instructions included an explanation of counterfactuals than when counterfactuals were not mentioned. Further, counterfactuals in response to these different instructions showed different patterns of relationships with scores on personality measures. These findings have implications for the interpreting of the counterfactual literature and for future research, although it is not clear what the implications are. One suggestion for future researchers is to examine the extent to which demand characteristics influence the results of counterfactual studies.


REFERENCES

Brown, J. D., Collins, R. L., & Schmidt, G. W. ( 1988). "Self-esteem and direct versus indirect forms of self-enhancement". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 445-453.

Brownstein, S. C., & Weiner, M. ( 1985). How to prepare for the Graduate Record Examination general test ( 7th Edition). Barron's Educational Series: Woodbury, NY.

Burger, J. M., & Cooper, H. M. ( 1979). "The desirability of control". Motivation and Emotion, 3, 381-393.

Cacioppo, J. T., Petty, R. E., & Kao, C. F. ( 1984). "The efficient assessment of need for cognition". Journal of Personality Assessment, 48, 306-307.

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