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Counterfactual Thinking

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".

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