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, 26 (5), 1318-31

Counterfactual Thinking About Actions and Failures to Act


Counterfactual Thinking About Actions and Failures to Act

R M Byrne et al. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn.


When people think counterfactually about how a situation could have turned out differently, they mentally undo events in regular ways (e.g., they focus on actions not failures to act). Four experiments examine the recent discovery that the focus on actions in the short term switches to inactions in the long term. The experiments show that this temporal switch occurs only for particular sorts of situations. Experiment 1 showed no temporal pattern to the agency effect when 112 participants judged emotional impact and frequency of "if-only" thoughts from both short- and long-term perspectives for an investment scenario. Experiment 2 showed no temporal pattern when 190 participants considered a college choice scenario with a good outcome. Experiment 3 showed no temporal pattern when 131 participants considered an investment scenario even when the situation for the actor and nonactor was bad from the outset. Experiment 4, with 113 participants, showed a focus on actions even when the investment loss was equal for both the actor and nonactor. The implications of the results are discussed in terms of what is explicitly available in the mental representation of actions and inactions.

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