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Mem Cognit. 2011 Oct;39(7):1317-31. doi: 10.3758/s13421-011-0101-4.

"If only" counterfactual thoughts about exceptional actions.

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Trinity College Dublin, University of Dublin, Dublin, Ireland.


People create counterfactual alternatives that change an exceptional action to be like a usual one (e.g., "if he had placed his usual small bet he would have lost less"), as shown in Experiment 1. Experiments 2 and 3 eliminated and reversed this well-known effect: An exceptional action is instead changed to an exceptional alternative when it leads to a better outcome. Experiments 4 and 5 show that the reversal occurs whether or not the exceptional alternative is a justified action. The results indicate that the tendency to change an exceptional action to be like a usual one is guided by the optimality of the counterfactual outcome more than the exceptionality or justifiability of the action. The implications for theories of the counterfactual imagination are discussed.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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