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Psychol Bull. 1997 Jan;121(1):133-48.

Counterfactual thinking.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208-2710, USA.


Counterfactuals are mental representations of alternatives to the past and produce consequences that are both beneficial and aversive to the individual. These apparently contradictory effects are integrated in a functionalist model of counterfactual thinking. The author reviews research in support of the assertions that (a) counterfactual thinking is activated automatically in response to negative affect, (b) the content of counterfactuals targets particularly likely causes of misfortune, (c) counterfactuals produce negative affective consequences through a contrast-effect mechanism and positive inferential consequences through a causal-inference mechanism, and (d) the net effect of counterfactual thinking is beneficial.

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