What Might Have Been: The Social Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking

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

Movies, however, do not necessarily mirror real life. Characters in the movies are sometimes blessed by ghosts or guardian angels who can construct the relevant counterfactual worlds for them. People in real life, in contrast, must do this work by themselves, and do so in their head. In this chapter, we have outlined some of the steps that people must take to compare a counterfactual world to the one they inhabit or to compare two potential counterfactual worlds to each other (as when happens when people must choose between two courses of action). We also outlined a few of the psychological factors that may influence people's assessments as they take these steps and have examined how the impact of those psychological factors may be revealed via framing.

This analysis about people's counterfactual assessments brings to mind a final question. If people provide different counterfactual assessments under different frames, with which frame do people provide more accurate appraisals? Are assessments more accurate when the road taken is made the subject of comparison? Or do people have more insight when focusing their attention on the hypothetical alternative or on the past? Presently, we have no satisfactory way to answer this question. Indeed, we wonder whether it is answerable. Suffice it to say that we take the advice that many readers will have heard before: The best decisions are made after considering all alternatives. At the very least, considering all the alternatives provides a more informed appraisal than does considering only one.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We thank Mary Parpal, who assisted us in collecting some of the data reported in this chapter. Portions of this research were conducted while David Dunning was supported by National Science Foundation predoctoral fellowships. Part of the research also received financial support from National Institute of Mental Health Research Grant MH--36093, awarded to Lee Ross and Mark Lepper. We thank Andy Brothers and Meghana Karande for serving as coders in the content analysis study reported.


REFERENCES

Beyth--Marom, R., Austin, L., Fischhoff, B., Palmgren, C., & Jacobs--Quadrel, M. ( 1993). "Perceived consequences of risky behaviors: Adults and adolescents". Developmental Psychology, 29, 549-563.

de S. Shazer ( 1985). Keys to solution in brief therapy. New York: Norton.

Dhar, R., & Simonson, I. ( 1991). "The effect of focus of comparison on consumer preferences". Journal of Marketing Research, 29, 430-440.

Dunning, D., & Hayes, A. F. ( 1994). Evidence for egocentric comparison in social judgment. Unpublished manuscript, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

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