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Standard thinking is that what an agent chooses to do on any given occasion is completely determined by her beliefs and desires or values, but this is not uncontroversial, as will be noted below.

Utility and Probability

Counterfactuals are thoughts about alternatives to past events, that is, thoughts of what might have been. This article provides an updated account of the functional theory of counterfactual thinking, suggesting that such thoughts are best explained in terms of their role in behavior regulation and performance improvement.

The article reviews a wide range of cognitive experiments indicating that counterfactual thoughts may influence behavior by either of two routes: a content-specific pathway which involves specific informational effects on behavioral intentions, which then influence behavior and a content-neutral pathway which involves indirect effects via affect, mind-sets, or motivation.

The functional theory is particularly useful in organizing recent findings regarding counterfactual thinking and mental health.

The article concludes by considering the connections to other theoretical conceptions, especially recent advances in goal cognition. Who among us has never wondered about what might have been had some past choice been different?

With perhaps a little more effort, you might have been an athlete, a doctor, maybe even a rock star. Who among us has never regretted choices made and actions taken? Maybe you should have studied harder in school, traveled more when you had the chance, or had the salmon for lunch instead of the pasta. And who has never pondered a lost love and imagined how passionate it might have been? Thinking about what might have been, about alternatives to our own pasts, is central to human thinking and emotion.

Such thoughts are called counterfactual thoughts. Counterfactual thoughts are mental representations of alternatives to past events, actions, or states Byrne, ; Roese, The term counterfactual derives from philosophical writings in which the logical status of possibility and probabilistic reasoning were closely scrutinized e. Crucially, counterfactual thoughts are often evaluative, specifying alternatives that are in some tangible way better or worse than actuality.

In this article, we focus exclusively on counterfactual thinking and regret defined in terms of cognitions about past events. Counterfactual thinking may well be an essential property of intelligence itself Hofstadter, Why do we have counterfactual thoughts? Where do they come from, and what purpose if any do they serve? The present article summarizes what is currently known about the behavior regulatory function of counterfactual thinking. According to this theoretical perspective, the primary function of counterfactual thinking centers on management and coordination of ongoing behavior.

Thinking about what might have been influences performance and facilitates improvement, and it does so by way of several distinct mechanisms. Later in this article, we review recent discoveries in cognitive neuroscience, which are strikingly compatible with this functional framework.

Counterfactual generation was described in terms of the momentary activation in memory of exemplars of past similar experiences. For example, a motorist involved in an accident during a drive on an atypical route at her typical time of commuting would wish that she had taken her typical route, but another accident victim, driving along his typical route at an atypical commuting time would instead wish that he had driven at the more typical time.

The functional perspective on counterfactual thinking, which is the focus of this article, emphasizes top-down than rather than bottom-up processes. In this view, counterfactual thinking may be seen primarily as a useful, beneficial, and utterly necessary component of behavior regulation. Accordingly, counterfactual thoughts are closely connected to goal cognitions, as we elaborate further throughout this article.

Counterfactual thoughts are typically activated by a failed goal, and they specify what one might have been done to have achieved that goal Markman et al. It is interesting to note that this theory casts norm theory in a somewhat different light: Rather than depicting counterfactual thoughts as a source of bias, counterfactuals are instead seen as mostly beneficial, yet with important dysfunctional exceptions that may emerge under particular conditions. In the next section, we lay out the main details of this functional theory of counterfactual thinking.

The two defining features of a functional interpretation of a psychological process are that a the process is activated by a particular deficit or need and b the process produces changes that end the deficit or fulfill the need.

In the case of counterfactual thinking, if its primary function is problem solving, then counterfactual thinking should be activated by problems, and it should have the effect of evoking behaviors that correct those problems.

This proposition is at root a regulatory loop-governing behavior. This regulatory loop is depicted in Figure 1 , and it shows several cognitive steps linked within a sequence. When there is a match between the current state and the reference state, corrective activity is terminated. In terms of counterfactual thinking, research has shown that problems activate counterfactual thinking, that counterfactual thinking produces behavior change, and that affect may be one pathway by which such behavior change occurs.

The process begins with a problem, mishap, or other negative experience that falls below a reference value for success or satisfactory performance. Recognition of a problem then activates counterfactual thinking step 1 in Figure 1. This counterfactual conditional is an inference that links an antecedent to a consequent; in everyday cognition, most typically the antecedent is an action and the consequent is a goal e.

To the extent that such behavior alleviates the original problem, this mechanism is effective in regulating behavior in terms of goal pursuit. The connection of counterfactual to goals was illuminated in a simple demonstration conducted in our lab. Thus, causal statements represented the control condition. Of readily available counterfactual thoughts, then, about three quarters focused on personal action and about one third centered on effortful, deliberative goals.

For example, a cup of coffee feels hotter, by contrast, if one has just been eating ice cream. In the same way, a factual outcome may appear worse if a more desirable alternative outcome is salient and better if a less desirable outcome is salient e.

In this example, the affective contrast resulting from a downward comparison is relatively pleasant i. The second mechanism identified by Roese was that of causal inferences.

Causal inference effects occur because a counterfactual conditional may emphasize, dramatize, or illuminate the causal link between an antecedent behavior and a desired outcome.

By virtue of their conditional structure and implicit reference to a parallel factual statement, counterfactual comparisons to actual sequences of events serve to isolate one particular causal antecedent in terms of its sufficiency to produce a divergent outcome.

Although this partition of mechanisms of counterfactual thinking into either of contrast effects or causal inference effects served a previously useful explanatory role, recent evidence has rendered it somewhat less effective.

To the extent that individuals adopt a reflective mental stance and find themselves focusing and vicariously experiencing the details of a counterfactual scenario, they may assimilate toward the emotions contained in it e. For these reasons, we propose a different way of encapsulating the behavioral consequences of counterfactual thinking other than the distinction between contrast effects and causal inference effects, one that better captures the new insights gleaned from recent research.

We suggest a distinction between content-neutral and content-specific pathways from counterfactual thinking to action. Gollwitzer and Moskowitz used a similar distinction to describe the more general influence of goals on action, and given that counterfactual inferences are often goal related, this distinction provides a useful way to organize an expanding set of interlocking findings.

The content-specific pathway involves the transfer of information regarding action that might have been taken from the counterfactual inference to behavioral intentions, which in turn influence performance of corresponding behavior. The content-specific pathway is what appears in Figure 1.

This pathway is content specific in the sense that the particular information contained in the counterfactual i. In the content-neutral pathway, on the other hand, it is the activation of a more general style of information processing, or motivation to expend greater effort, that results in behavior change see Figure 2. Contrast effects may fuel behavior change via this pathway, but in addition, so too might assimilation effects, mind-sets, or motivations, all of which operate in a manner that is independent of the specific information contained in the original counterfactual.

Below, we review evidence for both pathways. Further, we argue that these pathways may operate either in isolation or interactively. We turn first to the content-specific pathway. The regulatory sequence begins with the occurrence and recognition of a problem, mishap, or other negative experience that falls below a reference value for success or satisfactory performance.

For example, a student might receive a failing grade on an exam, which represents a discrepancy between current performance and the reference standard of success such as the goal of attaining a grade of B. Various lines of evidence demonstrate that negative as opposed to positive outcomes activate counterfactual thinking.

For example, in a study of reactions to bets on National Football League games, comments by participants about their losses and wins were coded by judges for counterfactual content; far more counterfactual comments were directed toward losses than toward wins Gilovich, , Experiment 1. Other evidence has come from manipulations of bogus feedback on laboratory tasks e.

Negative affect may also influence the activation of counterfactual thinking, for the reason that negative as opposed to neutral affect may act as a signal that goal progress is insufficient or problematic, whereas positive affect signals adequate goal progress i.

Inductions of negative relative to neutral or positive mood states have been found to heighten upward counterfactual thinking in several studies Sanna, ; Sanna et al. Goal cognitions were clearly involved in these affective effects, for two reasons. First, the effects were moderated by individual difference factors that implicate variation in goals, such as optimism versus defensive pessimism Sanna, and self-esteem Sanna et al.

Second, and more telling, direct manipulations of goal states themselves interacted with mood effects, such that negative mood was particularly likely to heighten upward counterfactual thinking when the individual is focused on performance or self-improvement motives Sanna, Chang, et al. Thus, two key determinants of the activation of counterfactual thinking are the recognition of a problem blocked goal and the negative emotions that accompany that recognition. A different set of determinants, such as norm violation and perceived control, has been shown to dictate the content of counterfactual thinking.

These determinants have been reviewed elsewhere Miller et al. To summarize, the first step in the regulatory loop is the activation of counterfactual thinking by problems or negative affect.

The content-specific pathway involves a particular insight contained in the counterfactual regarding the usefulness of some action, which is then transferred to a corresponding behavioral intention, which then fuels behavior. The first experimental demonstration of the effect of counterfactuals on intentions was somewhat ambiguous, however. Roese , Experiment 2 manipulated counterfactual thinking by having participants first focus on a recent academic performance that was disappointing, then generate three ways that the performance might have been better upward counterfactual versus might have been worse downward counterfactual ; an additional, no-counterfactual, control condition was also included.

The dependent measure was a set of Likert intention ratings. Participants who generated upward counterfactuals reported elevated intentions to perform future success-facilitating behaviors compared with no-counterfactual control participants. Generation of downward counterfactuals had no effect relative to the control participants. Although the above studies may be taken as evidence of a content-specific pathway, ambiguity remains as to whether the effects involved formation of intentions inspired directly by the content of an upward counterfactual or resulted instead from a motivational push by the negative affect that sprung from that upward counterfactual via a contrast effect.

In the latter case, the motivational push would result in higher Likert ratings on a range of intention judgments, both specific and unrelated to the counterfactual in question. A study by Morris and Moore , Study 1 is similarly ambiguous.

Upward, self-focused counterfactual statements were correlated with these intention statements, even after controlling for the severity of the original event. Intriguing as these studies were as demonstrations of the usefulness of counterfactual thinking for performance improvement, the ambiguity remains: Are intentions affected by counterfactuals by way of transfer of specific content? To address this ambiguity, a recent series of experiments provided more direct evidence for the content-specific pathway by which counterfactuals influence behavior.

Smallman and Roese used a sequential priming paradigm to demonstrate that counterfactual thinking facilitates intentions to perform specific contentrelated acts. In each trial, participants made two judgments, the first involving a counterfactual versus control or baseline judgment and the second involving a behavioral intention judgment.

The solution in these studies was to manipulate only the stem but not the main body of an action phrase. In the prime segment of each trial, participants first saw an event, designed to establish the context e.

Two seconds later, a stem plus action phrase appeared below, to which participants pressed a key to indicate their agreement or disagreement. In the counterfactual trials, a counterfactual stem was paired with the action phrase e. In the control trials, participants answered a question about the action phrase that was specified by the control stem. Control trials were intended to draw attention to the action phrase without encouraging inferences of a counterfactual nature. In one study, for example, participants answered questions about how many words appeared in the action phrase e.

In another study, the stem prompted them to consider the frequency with which the action occurs in daily life, by way of a frequency stem paired with the action phrase e.

Causal Decision Theory

Counterfactuals are thoughts about alternatives to past events, that is, thoughts of what might have been. This article provides an updated account of the functional theory of counterfactual thinking, suggesting that such thoughts are best explained in terms of their role in behavior regulation and performance improvement. The article reviews a wide range of cognitive experiments indicating that counterfactual thoughts may influence behavior by either of two routes: a content-specific pathway which involves specific informational effects on behavioral intentions, which then influence behavior and a content-neutral pathway which involves indirect effects via affect, mind-sets, or motivation. The functional theory is particularly useful in organizing recent findings regarding counterfactual thinking and mental health. The article concludes by considering the connections to other theoretical conceptions, especially recent advances in goal cognition.


Robert C. Stalnaker. Pages PDF ยท Counterfactuals and Two Kinds of Expected Utility. Allan Gibbard, William L. Harper. Pages PDF.


Two envelopes problem

Skip to search form Skip to main content You are currently offline. Some features of the site may not work correctly. DOI: Wolpert and G.

Subjective expected utility SEU theory is a prescriptive theory of decision making that grew out of economics. The translation of economic concepts to medicine has a number of problems. Although SEU can assist with overcoming some of these problems, the value of SEU is primarily in helping the decision maker to structure the decision.

In contrast, the closest-world interpretation of counterfactuals e. Lewis a [ 3 ] assigns truth values to all counterfactual sentences, regardless of the logical form of the antecedent. We show that every imaging operation can be given an interpretation in terms of a stochastic policy in which agents choose actions with certain probabilities.

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