What Might Have Been: The Social Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking

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

13
Counterfactual Thinking and Coping With Traumatic Life Events

Christopher G. Davis Darrin R. Lehman University of British Columbia

Since Kahneman and Tversky's ( 1982) early observations regarding the nature of counterfactual thought (i.e., the mental simulation of alternative outcomes), considerable research has explored the properties, consequences, and roles of such cognitions. Most of this research has been on the perceiver's or observer's construal of unexpected, negative outcomes as a function of the counterfactual images these outcomes evoke.1 The implicit assumption in much of this work is that observers (typically role-playing participants) are accurate in their perceptions of how people will feel about, or react to, a given outcome ( Miller & Turnbull, 1990). For example, when observers suggest that one outcome, due to the greater mutability of its antecedents, is more traumatic than another, the implication is that such an outcome is, in fact, more traumatic and will elicit greater distress for the individual experiencing it. In this chapter, we consider this assumption in detail by reviewing existing field data. We make the point that the process of cognitive undoing for real-life victims of traumatic events seems in many ways to differ from the well-researched process that has been described for observers.

We begin by discussing the central notion of mutability, summarizing how researchers have operationalized the construct and briefly reviewing

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1
Although counterfactuals can follow unexpected positive events (see, e.g., Gleicher et al., 1990; Landman, 1987), in this chapter we focus exclusively on counterfactuals that follow unexpected negative events.

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