What Might Have Been: The Social Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking

What Might Have Been: The Social Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking

What Might Have Been: The Social Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking

What Might Have Been: The Social Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking

Synopsis

Within a few short years, research on counterfactual thinking has mushroomed, establishing itself as one of the signature domains within social psychology. Counterfactuals are thoughts of what might have been, of possible past outcomes that could have taken place. Counterfactuals and their implications for perceptions of time and causality have long fascinated philosophers, but only recently have social psychologists made them the focus of empirical inquiry.

Following the publication of Kahneman and Tversky's seminal 1982 paper, a burgeoning literature has implicated counterfactual thinking in such diverse judgments as causation, blame, prediction, and suspicion; in such emotional experiences as regret, elation, disappointment and sympathy; and also in achievement, coping, and intergroup bias. But how do such thoughts come about? What are the mechanisms underlying their operation? How do their consequences benefit, or harm, the individual? When is their generation spontaneous and when is it strategic? This volume explores these and other numerous issues by assembling contributions from the most active researchers in this rapidly expanding subfield of social psychology. Each chapter provides an in-depth exploration of a particular conceptual facet of counterfactual thinking, reviewing previous work, describing ongoing, cutting-edge research, and offering novel theoretical analysis and synthesis. As the first edited volume to bring together the many threads of research and theory on counterfactual thinking, this book promises to be a source of insight and inspiration for years to come.

Excerpt

There are ever so many ways that a world might be; and one of these many ways is the way that this world is.

--David Lewis (1986, p. 2)

Within a few short years, research on counterfactual thinking has mushroomed, establishing itself as one of the signature domains within social psychology. This sudden popularity is easily understood. Counterfactual thinking is something familiar to nearly everyone. Even if they have not previously heard the term counterfactual, people instantly recognize it, once it has been defined for them, as something with which they are intimately acquainted. Few indeed have never regretted some action or yearned to have avoided some circumstance. But it is the childlike wonder with which we gaze on "what might have been," into realms of possible, alternative worlds, which truly underlies the excitement of counterfactual research. What if Kennedy had survived his assassin's bullets into a second term in the White House? What if the Nazis had triumphed over the Western democracies in the Second World War? What if your parents had never met? There is something at once obsessively compelling and oddly unsettling about confronting the unrealities that might well have been. In intermixing fantasy and free-form creativity with the tangible truths of our lives, such subjunctive suppositions have the potential to inform, enrich, emote, and even entertain us. As Douglas Hofstadter wrote, "Think how immeasurably poorer our mental lives would be if . . .

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