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J Pers Soc Psychol. 1994 Oct;67(4):585-95.

"If only I weren't" versus "if only I hadn't": distinguishing shame and guilt in counterfactual thinking.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Indiana University, Bloomington 47405.


The role of counterfactual thinking in 2 emotions--shame and guilt--was examined. In 1 series of studies, Ss read about situations evocative of shame and guilt or described personal experiences of guilt or shame. They then generated counterfactual alternatives to "undo" the distressing outcomes. Consistent with predictions derived from Tangney (1991), Ss tended to undo shame situations by altering qualities of the self and to undo guilt situations by altering actions. In a 2nd series of studies, Ss imagined themselves in a situation that could evoke either guilt or shame. Ss were then led to mutate the self or behavior to undo the situation. Mutation manipulations amplified shame and guilt such that the former Ss anticipated feeling greater shame, whereas the latter anticipated feeling greater guilt. The role of counterfactual thinking in specific emotions and in differentiating shame- and guilt-prone personalities is discussed.

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