What Might Have Been: The Social Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking

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

9
Some Counterfactual Determinants of Satisfaction and Regret

Thomas Gilovich Victoria Husted Medvec Cornell University

Most people are familiar with the parable of the man who was upset because he had no shoes--until he met a man with no feet. The tale is of particular interest to psychologists because it offers a fundamentally psychological message: A person's material conditions matter less than how those conditions are phenomenologically experienced.

Research psychologists have extended this truism by articulating some of the most common and powerful determinants of how objective outcomes are subjectively construed. One important factor is how a person's circumstances compare with those of relevant others ( Crosby, 1976; Festinger, 1954; Olson, Herman, & Zanna, 1986; Suls & R. Miller, 1977; Suls & Wills, 1991; Taylor & Lobel, 1989). The same three-bedroom house can seem like a shack or a mansion depending on the housing stock on the rest of the block. Another critical determinant of the level of satisfaction with a given outcome is how it compares with expectations ( Atkinson, 1964; Feather, 1967; 1969). Owning such a three-bedroom house can induce pride or shame depending on what one had in mind before meeting with a realtor.

This volume is dedicated to a third source of subjectivity- -how an outcome compares to imagined counterfactual alternatives. The concern in this case is how outcomes are compared, not to preexisting expectations about what should have been, but with after-the-fact representations of what might have been ( Kahneman & D. Miller, 1986). Learning that the property next door is contaminated with PCBs is upsetting, but less so

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