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J Psychol. 2015;149(7):643-64. doi: 10.1080/00223980.2014.954512. Epub 2014 Oct 8.

Effect of Motivational Goals on the Causal Realism of Counterfactual Thoughts.

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a Athens University of Economics and Business.


Counterfactual thinking refers to mental comparisons of reality with imagined alternatives of it. The "functional view" of counterfactual thinking suggests that upward counterfactuals (which improve on reality) serve a preparative function and downward counterfactuals (which worsen reality) serve an affective function. This view presumes that people generate counterfactuals that focus on cause(s) that have actually produced the negative outcomes. The two experiments reported here demonstrate that people spontaneously manipulate the causal content of their counterfactuals, depending on their motivational goals. Specifically, it was found that when people aim to feel better about a poor decision they generate less realistic (upward) counterfactuals, experience less negative affect and tend to attribute the outcome to less controllable causes than when they aim to learn from their experience. The theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed.


attribution theory; learning; social interaction

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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