July 2007 Research published in the June issue of Psychological Science, a journal of
the Association for Psychological Science, sheds new light on the mental processes involved in "counterfactual
thinking" in which past decisions are reviewed and alternatives evaluated. The authors explain that while this can be
positive and affirming, it more commonly engenders regret and self-criticism.
Most studies of counterfactual thinking have involved participants reading scenarios in which poor
decisions are made and asking them how they would have responded in the same situation. However, Vittorio Girotto
of the University IUAV of Venice, Italy and colleagues found significant differences in counterfactual thinking when
the experience of failure is real rather than hypothetical.
In a series of experiments, participants were divided into "actors" (who actually experienced the
problem) and "readers" (who read about it). Actors were invited to take part in a competition to solve a math problem.
They were given a choice between two sealed envelopes, described as containing either a difficult or an easy problem.
In fact, both contained a problem that was virtually impossible to solve in the time allowed. Having failed to
complete the task, actors were asked to write at least one way in which the experience could have been improved.
Readers were asked to consider a written version of the same scenario and similarly to write at least
one way in which things could have been better for the main character.
Contrary to previous findings, researchers identified significant differences in the counterfactual
thinking processes of the two groups. Readers tended to change the choice made by the character (pick the other
envelope). Actors elected to change elements in the problem-solving process itself (e.g. allow use of a calculator).
It was also believed that actors had a strong tendency to avoid self-blame when identifying alternatives. The current
study found differences even when actors' decisions could not be criticised.
The researchers conclude:
"Actors and readers produce different counterfactuals because they rely on different information, not
because they have different motivations".
People usually follow emotional gut instinct rather than rational responses when making decisions about complex issues such as
terrorism, troop surges or crime, even though the brain can simultaneously process both kinds of information.
You can view any decision making as solving a problem - in fact
any kind of thinking task could be called problem solving.
People who do well on a series of decision-making tasks involving hypothetical
situations tend to have more positive decision outcomes in their lives.
Study finds that the colour of orange juice has a huge effect on perceptions of taste.
The amount of emotional content
in television advertisements affects viewers' opinions of the product, regardless of the intended message.
A possible mechanism for how the brain allows us to anticipate future events and detect unexpected outcomes has been identified.