Comparison Processes in Counterfactual Thought
David Dunning Cornell University
Scott F. Madey University of Toledo
Reactions to events often not only require knowledge of what happened but also require a sense of what failed to happen. Consider Terry Malloy, the down-and-out former boxer in Elia Kazan's classic movie, On the Waterfront. For him, his life is not defined by the history he has experienced but rather by the history he was asked to forego. He is consumed by thoughts that he "could've been a contender ... could've been somebody," had he not followed his brother's advice and "taken a dive" in the most important bout of his life. Or consider the two sisters in Herbert Ross's 1977 film, The Turning Point. One has forsaken a career in ballet to raise a family. The other chose the career and never married. The thoughts and emotions that each sibling has about her life are not so much driven by the experiences she has accumulated or the circumstances she finds herself in. Rather, they are driven by some sense of what the the life of her sister must be like, a life that reminds her of what has failed to happen in her own existence.
Researchers in counterfactual thinking have begun to investigate how people construct these "what failed to happens" or the "what might have beens" that give meaning to the events they experience ( Kahneman & Miller, 1986; Miller, Turnbull, & McFarland, 1990; Wells, Taylor, & Turtle, 1987). For example, a growing body of research has focused on when people will spontaneously or automatically consider hypothetical alternatives without prompting ( Kahneman & Miller, 1986). Another line of work has concentrated on which counterfactual world people will choose