Counterfactual Thought, Regret,
and Superstition: How to
Avoid Kicking Yourself
Dale T. Miller Princeton University
Brian R. Taylor Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Some years ago a charismatic 19-year-old Spanish matador nicknamed "Yiyo" was gored to death. Yiyo's death evoked considerable public anguish and debate ( Schumacher, 1985). Making his fans' reaction especially intense was the circumstance of his death: He was killed while serving as a last-minute substitute for another matador. Students of counterfactual thinking can be forgiven sly smiles and knowing nods as they read this story for it contains all the elements necessary to provide a dramatic test of the oft-cited hypothesis that events preceded by exceptional actions, such as substituting for another matador, are more easily imagined otherwise and generate more affect than events preceded by routine actions. A simple test of this hypothesis, first proposed by Kahneman and Tversky ( 1982b), would contrast the highly "mutable" fate of poor Yiyo with the less mutable fate of some other unfortunate "Yiyo" who had been killed by a bull he had long been scheduled to face. The two versions of the event could be presented to participants in scenario format and their reactions probed through a list of questions that might include the following: Did you have any "if only" thoughts when reading of Yiyo's death? How intense was your affective reaction to Yiyo's death? What degree of regret do you think Yiyo would have experienced if he had suffered only serious injuries rather than death? Presumably, those participants who had read the highly mutable version of Yiyo's death would report more if-only thoughts, stronger affective reactions, and greater expectations of regret.