Functions of Counterfactual Thinking
Neal J. Roese Northwestern University
James M. Olson University of Western Ontario
With these words human beings achieve the capacity to catapult themselves beyond the muck and malignancy of the actual into the liberating realm of the possible. What if you had invested more in mutual funds last year? What if you had learned to speak French as a child? Or, what if you had bought the winning million-dollar lottery ticket last week? Such articulations of a possible yet untrue past are called counterfactual thoughts, and an increasing number of researchers are recognizing the significance of their pervasive presence in people's mental lives. The above examples capture something of the range of counterfactual possibilities, from the mundane to the fantastic, that can easily be generated on demand.
But what essential psychological consequences emerge from people's propensity to reason counterfactually? Are such thoughts generally beneficial? Do they instead hamper goal-directed behavior? Or are they merely epiphenomenal and hence inconsequential? A decade of research by social psychologists has illuminated a variety of situational constraints on and affective consequences of counterfactual thinking, but less attention has been directed toward the functional value of such thoughts. For our purposes, we use the term functional to denote any cognitive process that may have globally beneficial consequences for the individual. As with previous functional approaches, counterfactual thoughts are examined and explained in terms of the "needs" they serve. As Katz ( 1960) stated,