Varieties of Counterfactual Thinking
Daniel Kahneman Princeton University
The essays in this volume attest to the rapid advances achieved in a relatively short period of time in the psychological study of counterfactual thinking. Some of the advances are methodological: Research has moved far beyond vignettes to the study of real counterfactual emotions and causal intuitions in the laboratory and in the world. New topics of research have also emerged, including the preparatory function of counterfactual thinking (chapters 5, 6, and 10), and individual differences in the generation of various types of counterfactual thoughts (chapters 3 and 10). And there is more to come. In this chapter I focus on topics that may further enlarge the domain that students of counterfactual thinking call their own.
The notion of counterfactual thinking covers a broad range of mental activities that differ greatly in their complexity. At one extreme, the elementary response of surprise when the doorbell makes an unusual sound is associated with a counterfactual thought: The normal alternative is presumably evoked, and it is counterfactual. At the other extreme on a dimension of intentional elaboration, historians ponder an alternative world in which the South won the Civil War. The basic surprise response and the exercise in counterfactual history share an important characteristic: