Individual Differences in Counterfactual Thinking
Margaret Kasimatis Hope College
Gary L. Wells Iowa State University
Kelly ( 1970) suggested that an individual's mental construction of a situation guides his or her thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in that situation. However, findings from recent research have suggested that people not only construct current situations but also reconstruct past events. One way people might reconstruct past events is to engage in counterfactual thinking, which is a form of mental simulation in which a person imagines how some factual outcome might easily have turned out differently ( Kahneman & Tversky, 1982). For example, people might think "If only Ted Kennedy had not tried to drive Mary Jo Kopechne home that night, he might be President today."
Counterfactual processing has been found to be a common response to negative events. For example, Davis, Lehman, Wortman, Silver, and Thompson ( 1995) found that 48% of their respondents spontaneously reported undoing in their minds about a motor vehicle accident in which they lost a child or spouse something that would change the outcome of the event. Similarly, Landman and Manis ( 1992) found that over half of their respondents reported that they would do something differently in their life if they had it to do over again.
Although counterfactual thinking appears to be a common response to dramatic events, research findings suggest that counterfactual thinking is more likely to occur under some circumstances than under others. Most of the factors that appear to influence when counterfactual thinking occurs are related to the mutability of events, which refers to how easily a person