What Might Have Been: The Social Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking

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

consequent condition (e.g., "Y would have occurred"). This structure provides both an outcome comparison and the suggestion of a process by which alternative outcomes could have been or could be achieved. It is perhaps this combination of outcome and process features that leads to the unique constellation of emotions induced by counterfactual simulations (e.g., a mixture of regret and self-blame). Because of the power of counterfactual simulations to stimulate emotional responses and because of their inherent process component, they may be particularly effective in spurring individuals to engage in further simulation that directly influences behavior.


CONCLUSION

This discussion points to an important feature of continuing research of the implications of counterfactual thinking: In order to draw conclusions about the effects of counterfactual thinking on behavior, it will be important for researchers to measure actual behaviors, as was begun in the program of research described here. In other words, researchers must move away from scenario studies toward the examination of counterfactual thoughts generated in real situations.

We conclude, then, with thoughts similar to those with which we began this chapter. We are too optimistic to believe that counterfactual thinking is inherently maladaptive, and the data we have presented here supports our optimistic assumptions. It seems that counterfactuals can be considered from several perspectives, only some of which lead to maladaptive effects. Our evidence suggests that to the extent that people think about imaginary alternatives with an eye toward the future, two important positive functions are served: the amelioration of counterfactually induced negative emotions and the facilitation of adaptive behavioral choices in the future. Thus, the "stink of the past" may well become the sweet smell of the future.


REFERENCES

Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E. P., & Teasdale, J. D. ( 1978). "Learned helplessness in humans: Critique & reformulation". Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87, 49-74.

Anderson, C. A. ( 1983). "Imagination and expectation: The effect of imagining behavioral scripts on personal intentions". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 366-378.

Bell, D. E. ( 1982). "Regret in decision making under uncertainty". Operations Research, 30, 961-981.

Boninger, D. S., Gleicher, F., Hetts, J., Armor, D., & Moore, E. ( 1994). The influence of counterfactual thinking on intentions and behavior. Unpublished raw data.

Boninger, D. S., Gleicher, F., & Strathman, A. ( 1994). "Counterfactual thinking: From what might have been to what may be". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 297-307.

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