Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Counterfactual thinking motivation

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Counterfactual thinking motivation:
What motivates counterfactual thinking?


Counterfactual thinking is when a person imagines an alternative for an event and assesses the consequences of that change. The person might imagine how the consequents[spelling?] may have turned out differently if the antecedents had been different. For example, a person may think about how his life might have turned out if he made different choices, "If I got a degree, I will have a better job now", "If I didn’t move to the city, I would have been happier", and "If I wasn’t inattentive to the road, I wouldn’t have been in this car crash". These alternate versions can be advantageous or disadvantageous to the person. Counterfactual thinking is normally associated with negative emotions, however in some cases it can also be shown to produce positive emotions as well. Counterfactual thinking can be defined by using two theories: The Norm theory which specifies exemplar based processing of base rates as the main factor (Epstude & Roese, 2008) and the Functional Theory which defines two factors to counterfactual thinking. There are three types of counterfactual thinking: Upward vs. Downward, Addictive v. Subjective and self vs. other. The motivations for counterfactual thinking can arise from either behavioral intentions or goal-oriented purposes and can have either a positive or negative impact on one's life[for example?].

Counterfactual thinking[edit]

The term Counterfactual refers to literally, contrary to the facts (Roese & James 2014).Counterfactual thinking is normally a conditional statement and contains both an antecedent and a consequent (Roese & James 2014). For example "If I had studied more for the exam"(antecedent) "I would have passed the unit" (consequent). Answers to counterfactual questions allow the person assign blame for disastrous outcomes and acknowledge praise for beneficial outcomes (Spellman & Kincannon, 2001). After a person has experienced a negative life event, counterfactuals often represent better alternative scenarios; thereby people tend to envision how the negative outcome could have turned out to be better (Krott & Oettingen, 2017). During this process the person experiences positive counterfactuals: they imagine the preferred outcome (upward counterfactual) instead of the present reality (Byrne,2007). In the process of enlightening an individual of what they would have done in the past counterfactual thinking aids them by guidance and the motivation needed to enhance their performance (Epstude & Roese 2008).

Counterfactual thinking is frequently a driver of emotional reactions varying from regret to relief. Regret is normally triggered by the individual’s upward comparisons with better possible worlds while regret is typically caused by their downward comparisons with better possible worlds (Roese, 2010). Even though Counterfactual thinking is generally associated with negative feelings it can also in some instances produce positive feelings in an individual. Research shows that mental deduction of positive event's[grammar?] from one's life can actually intensify their positive emotional states through a process known as "counting one's blessings" (Koo et al, 2008). Regardless of whether counterfactual thinking causes negative or positive affective responses, it is a very useful tool to comprehend how independent concepts and events are interrelated. For example, participants who engaged in counterfactual thinking before undertaking the analytical component of the Law School Admissions Test scored approximately 10% higher than the rest of the examinees (Roese,2010). One common question asked about counterfactual thinking is that "Is counterfactual thinking an unconscious or conscious process?". The process of counterfactual thought i.e. the relationship between antecedents and consequents cannot essentially be associated with an unconscious mechanism as the thinking occurs after the action has been carried out. However there are also some indications suggesting the links can be involuntary (Kahneman, 1995). According to research, when an event is associated with a negative valence there is a strong indication that the counterfactual thought generated is automatic, however processing and suppressing thought necessitates a mental effort suggesting a voluntary process (Epstude & Roese, 2011). This area has limited research therefore it is yet to be thoroughly investigated before a clear conclusion can be developed.

Counterfactual thoughts are motivated in the instance of a failed goal (Epstude & Roese, 2011). As such counterfactual thinking occurs after the initial actions following the person's goal fails. A strong emotional response following failure to achieve a goal initiates the counterfactual thinking (Dembo, 1931). The anger a person feels after a failed attempt has shown to initiate counterfactual thought motivating a stronger impulse to achieve their ambitions (Epstude and Roese, 2011). According to Mandel (2003), Attributional process plays a huge part in motivating affective counterfactual thinking. Lewin's "state of tension", provides a representation on how counterfactual thinking is motivated (Lewin, 1935). A state of tension occurs when a disagreement occurs between two perceptions. For example when the desire to achieve a goal is inhibited by external forces. In these instances it is very important for the person to reflect on how their actions may alter the consequences as well as to find out how the problem arose in the first place.

The Rubicon Model of Action Phases

In The Rubicon Model of Action Phases the course of an action can be classified into four phases Gollwitzer, 2012, Heckhausen 1987, Heckhausen & Gollwitzer, 1987)

  1. Predecision phase- preferences are set among one's needs and aspirations by considering their appeal and practicability. The individual chooses among these converting them into goals during the process.
  2. Preaction Phase- the person begins goal-directed behaviours.
  3. Action phase- the person executes the initial goal-directed action to attain success in their task.
  4. Postaction phase- the person reflects on whether the goal has indeed been achieved or else they reflect on how or what they might have done differently to succeed in their goal (engages in counterfactual thinking).
Figure 1:"What if I studied more? Will I have passed the test?"


[Provide more detail]

Norm Theory[edit]

The Norm Theory inspired much of the early research in counterfactual thinking. Norm theory interprets counterfactual thoughts as a basic part of human cognition. A comparison of a real consequence to a counterfactual substitute can be achieved with relative ease and does not require a lot of mental effort from the person (Epstude & Roese, 2011). For e.g. would a person who missed a train by 30 min be upset about the situation as a person who missed the train by a few minutes? According to studies, 96% of participants found the latter to be more upset (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982). Evidently, the easier it is to imagine the alternative outcome, the greater are the feelings of regret (Epstude & Roese, 2011).

Functional Theory[edit]

The functional theory suggests that counterfactual thoughts are helpful and beneficial to a person (Epstude & Roese, 2008). People can learn from their past mistakes by knowing how things would have turned out differently if they made a different choice. It also offers possible clarifications as to why people focus on controllable events of their life. There are two proposed pathways in which counterfactual thoughts can influence behavior; content specific pathways and content-neural pathways (Eptude& Roese, 2008). Content-specific pathways accentuate the actual content of the counterfactual thought and the information is then used to change one's behavior in that particular area (Eptude& Roese, 2008). For e.g. not attending enough classes at university or not drinking enough water. The second pathway; content-neural, which motivates future behavior by stimulating an adaptive motivational approach (Eptude& Roese, 2008). Another way this takes place is by increased perceptions of control; when a person focuses on the changeable parts of their behavior (Nasco & Marsh, 1999). According to Girotto et al. (1991), counterfactual alternatives in the form of possible actions that were not taken are raised in a person when the consequents[spelling?] of an event tend to be controllable. When a person reflects back to imagine what they would undo in an event they imagine both the controllable event happening with the out come[spelling?] and the event not happening along with the outcome also not taking place (Eptude& Roese, 2008). For example;[grammar?] throwing the ball=broken window and not throwing the ball=no broken window.


Here are some example quiz questions - choose the correct answers and click "Submit":


Counterfactual thinking is:

Thinking positively
when a person imagines their actions for an event
when a person imagines an alternative for an event and assesses the consequences of that change


The term Counterfactual refers literally __________ to the facts:



To which phase of The Rubicon model does a person executing goal-directed behaviour belong? :.

Action Phase
Preaction Phase
Postaction Phase
Predecision Phase


Are counterfactual thoughts voluntary or involuntary?

voluntary and involuntary


Counterfactual thoughts are motivated:

in the absence of a goal.
in the presence of goal.
in the instance of an achieved goal.
in the instance of a failed goal.


Counterfactual thinking is generally associated with:

Negative feelings
Positive feelings
No feelings
Positive and negative feelings


[Provide more detail]

Upward vs. Downward[edit]

Upward counterfactual thinking is when a person constructs situations that are better than their reality (Roese, 1997). A person may imagine a situation in which their life would be better than their current state, for e.g. "If only I had more money". According to research a person is better prepared in the future when they are engaged in upward counterfactual thinking. The upward mental incentives can be taken as schemas for future goals making significant plans that aid the person to achieve success (Markman et al, 1993). For e.g. a person who imagines a situation where they had more money are motivated to work harder to achieve that alternative in the future. A high percentage of upward counterfactuals were initiated when the individuals associated a situation with loss or failure (Sanna & Turley, 1996). Upward counterfactuals have been found to provide more information for a person's self-betterment by comparing themselves to others who are doing better than themselves (Taylor & Lobel, 1990).

Downward counterfactual thinking is when a person evaluates a situation to be worse than their reality (Roese, 1997). For e.g.; "If I didn’t go to class, I would have failed". Downward counterfactuals can increase a person's self-esteem and help them under threatening conditions (Wills, 1981). For example, a person who has been robbed can console themselves in thinking "I'm lucky to be alive, I could have been killed, but they just took my money", whereas a person who asses[spelling?] the situation with upward counterfactuals will dwell on the fact they got robbed and be depressed for a long time. People engaging in downward counterfactuals generate more positive affective responses than people who imagine upward counterfactuals (Sanna & Turley, 1996). However, the advantage of better preparing a person for the future due to upward counterfactuals does not apply for downward counterfactuals because the person is satisfied by their current situation.

Additive vs. Subjective[edit]

Additive counterfactuals are when new antecedents are introduced when a person envisions an alternate reality (Kray et al, 2009). For example; "If only I had studied more for math, I would have got a Distinction". Addictive[spelling?] counterfactuals present a certain draft for future use (Johnson and Sherman, 1990). According to Roese and Olsen (1993), additive counterfactuals serve as a better preparative than subjective counterfactuals. These counterfactuals have an emphasis on the reaction choices that would have resulted in success and thus should be executed in the future (Markman & Lindberg, 2007). Additive counterfactuals are much more likely to stimulate resourceful reasoning as they are more open to developed alternative antecedents that were not part of the present reality (Markman & Lindberg, 2007).

Subtractive counterfactuals eliminate the antecedent for example, "If only it hadn't rained today, I would not have gotten wet" (Kray et al, 2009). Subjective counterfactuals contribute limited help to prepare a person for the future. These counterfactuals focus on antecedents that may not have been avoided and their elimination of the real antecedent may cause a person to develop more negatively affective responses.

"Additive counterfactuals are more creative. Whereas subtractive counterfactuals are restricted to the original set of premises (i.e., what actually happened), additive counterfactuals are, by definition, those that go beyond the original premise set, fabricating novel options perhaps never considered in the past." (Roese, 1994, p. 807).

Self vs. Other[edit]

Failure causes people to envision an alternate way in which they could have achieved better (Scholl, Sassenburg, 2014). The self vs. other counterfactuals focus on one's actions as opposed to the action of others (Epstude,Roese, 2008).People will consider an alternate reality in which their actions would have generated a different outcome, or an instance where the action of another person would have had a different outcome on events related to themselves. Self counterfactuals can be harmful to a person's self, putting the blame on themselves for events can generate negative affective responses towards themselves and motivate themselves to harm Themselves on severe cases. Other counterfactuals can lead to putting the blame and responsibility of their current consequences to other people. This can be harmful for themselves and the other people involved as the person might hold a grudge and act dangerously toward the other person.


Self Counterfactuals: "If I had driven slow, I would not have been in the accident".

"If I hadn't spilled water I would not have slipped".

Other Counterfactuals "If he had driven slow, I would not have been in the accident".

"If he hadn't spilled water, I would not have slipped".

Figure 2: Counterfactual thinking can aid one's self to accomplish their goals.


Here are some example quiz questions - choose the correct answers and click "Submit":


Upward counterfactual thinking is:

when a person thinks that their current state is perfect and cannot be changed
A person constructs situations worse than reality
person constructs situations that are better than their reality


A person is better prepared in the future when they engage in____________ thinking:.

upward counterfactual thinking
downward counterfactual thinking


when new antecedents are introduced when a person envisions an alternate reality is an:

upward counterfactual
downward counterfactual
additive counterfactual
subjective counterfactual


"If they had hosted the party, I would have saved money", is an example of:

Other counterfactual
self counterfactual
Additive counterfactual

Pros and Cons[edit]

Like everything else, engaging in counterfactual thinking comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. Counterfactual thinking can improve one's life or have negative consequences depending on the type of counterfactuals the person employs.


  • Counterfactual thinking can increase a person's willpower.("I will do better next time.")
  • It can cause the person to put in extra effort for their tasks. ("I will study harder".)
  • Counterfactual thinking can induce positive behaviour.
  • It can aid a person to view their situation from different perspectives
  • It can also induce creative cognition in an individual.
  • Counterfactuals can lead a person to action and motivate different choices in the future. (" I will study more to get a Distinction next time".)


  • Counterfactual thinking can cause depression, guilt and anger.
  • It may induce negative behaviour in some cases. (self harm and harm towards others)
  • Engaging in counterfactual thinking is associated with a higher level of negative emotions.(" I am a failure.", " I am not capable of studying".)


Counterfactual thinking is when a person constructs an alternate version of their reality. It can be motivated by a person's failure to achieve a goal. Upward counterfactuals are when a person constructs an alternative better than their reality and are shown to have a positive effect on the person as they better prepare the person for the future than downwards counterfactuals. Additive counterfactuals are when a new antecedent is introduced in a person's alternative and are much more likely to stimulate creative cognition than subjective thinking. Counterfactuals can be conscious or unconscious. Hence considering both the advantages and disadvantages of engaging in counterfactual thinking, it is mostly shown to have a positive impact on a person's life.

See also[edit]


Byrne, R.M.J. (2007). Precis of The rational imagination: How people create alternative to reality. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 30, 439-453. Doi: 10.1017/S0140525X07002579

Dembo, T. (1931). Der Ärger als dynamisches Problem [Angeras a dynamical problem]. Psychologische Forschung, 15,1–144

Epstude,K & Roese,N.J. (2008). The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking. 'Pers Soc Psychol Rev.' 12(2), 168-192. doi: 10.1177/1088868308316091

Epstude, K. & Roese, N.J. (2011). When Goal Pursuit Fails; The functions of Counterfactual Thought in Intention Formation. Social Psychology. 42(1), 19-27. DOI: 10.1027/1864-9335/a000039

Gollwitzer, P. M. (2012). Mindset Theoy of Action Phases. Theories of Social Psychology. 526-545.

Heckhausen, H. and Gollwitzer, P.M. (1987) Thought contents and cognitive functioning in motivationalversus volitional states of mind. Motivation and Emotion, 17,101-120.

Heckhausen, H. (1987) Wünschen - Wählen - Wollen.In H. Heckhausen, P.M. Gollwitzer, and F.E. Weinert(eds), Jenseits des Rubikon. Der Wille in den Humanwissenschaften (Crossing the Rubicon: The concept of will in the life sciences). 3-9.

Kahneman, D. (1995). Varieties of counterfactual thinking. In N.J.Roese & J.M.Olsen (Eds). What might have been: The social psychology of counterfactual thinking. 375-396.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1982). The simulation heuristic. In D. Kahneman, E. Slovic, & A. Tversky, (Eds.), Judgmentunder uncertainty: Heuristics and biases (pp. 201–208). NewYork: Cambridge University Press

Kray, J.L., Galinsky, A.d., Markman, D.K. (2009). Counterfactual structure and learning from experience in negotiations. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 45, 979-982.

Krott, N.R & Oettingen, G. (2017). Mental contrasting of counterfactual fantasies attenuates disappointment, regret and resentment.

Lewin, K. (1935). A dynamic theory of personality. New York:McGraw-Hill.

Markman, K.D. & Lindberg, M.J. (2007). Implications of Counterfactual Structure for Creative Generation and Analytical Problem Solving. Society for Personality and Social Psychology. 33(3), 312-324. DOI: 10.1177/0146167206296106

Roese, N. J., & Olson, J. M. (1993). The structure of counterfactual thought. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19, 312-319.

Roese, N. J. (1994). The functional basis of counterfactual thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(5), 805-818. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.66.5.805

Roese, J.N. & James, M.O. (2014). What Might Have Been: The Social Psychology of Counterfactual thinking. New York: Psychology Press. 1-381.

Sanna, L.J. & Turley, K.J. (1996). Antecedents to Spontaneous Counterfactual Thinking: Effects of Expectancy Violation and Outcome Valence. Society for Personality and Social Psychology. 22(9), 906-919.

Scholl, A., Sassenburg, K. (2014). Where could we stand if I had…? How social power impacts counterfactual thinking after failure. 'Journal of Experimental Social Psychology'. 53, 51-61. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2014.02.005

Spellman, B. & Kincannon, A. (2001). The relation between counterfactual (“but For”) and casual reasoning: Experimental findings and implications for jurors’ decisions. Law and Contemporary Problems. 64, 241-264.

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