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date: 20 November 2017

Counterfactuals in Health and Risk Messaging

Summary and Keywords

Counterfactual thinking is the process of mentally undoing the outcome of an event by imagining alternate antecedent states. For example, one might think that if they had given up smoking earlier, their health would be better. Counterfactuals are more frequent following negative events than positive events. Counterfactuals have both aversive and beneficial consequences for the individual. On the one hand, individuals who engage in counterfactual thinking experience negative affect and are prone to biased judgment and decision making. On the other hand, counterfactuals serve a preparative function, and they help people reach their goals in the future by suggesting effective behavioral alternatives.

Counterfactual thoughts have been found to influence an array of cognitive processes. Engaging in counterfactual thinking motivates careful, in-depth information processing, increases perceptions of self-efficacy and control, influences attitudes toward social matters, with consequences for behavioral intentions and subsequent behaviors. Although it is a heavily studied matter in some domains of the social sciences (e.g., psychology, political sciences, decision making), counterfactual thinking has received less attention in the communication discipline. Findings from the few studies conducted in communication suggest that counterfactual thinking is a promising message design strategy in risk and health contexts. Still, research in this area is critically needed, and it represents an opportunity to expand our knowledge.

Keywords: counterfactual thinking, behavior, persuasion, perception, information processing, health and risk message design and processing

Definition of Counterfactual Thinking

Counterfactual thinking can be defined as the generation of cognitions about past events that are contrary to actual facts (Lewis, 1973; Roese, 1997, 2000). The process of counterfactual thinking involves thoughts about what might have been, provided that a different choice or decision had been made or a different behavior had been performed (Epstude & Roese, 2008). For example, one might wonder how things would have been different had they chosen to take their medication as prescribed by their doctor as opposed to not taking it due to fear of side effects. A counterfactual takes the form of a conditional proposition, in which the antecedent is an action and the consequence is an outcome (Roese, 1997). In the counterfactual “If only I had taken my medication, I would not be in the hospital right now,” not having taken one’s medication is the antecedent and being in the hospital is the outcome. Through a counterfactual, individuals attempt to undo the antecedent that brought about the outcome. Counterfactuals are evaluative in that they describe an alternative that is either better (If I had taken my medication, I would not be in the hospital) or worse (e.g., Had I taken my medication, I probably would be experiencing terrible side effects now) than reality.

Imagining how things could have been otherwise is a pervasive mode of thought across nations and cultures (Sanna, Stocker, & Clarke, 2003). Individuals develop the capacity for counterfactual thought as early as the age of two (Beck, Robinson, Carroll, & Apperly, 2006; Perner, Sprung, & Steinkogler, 2004). Early research suggested that language may influence the generation and understanding of counterfactuals (Bloom, 1981). Specifically, languages such as Chinese that lack the subjunctive “if–then” were thought to not allow for imagining of might-have-been scenarios. However, more recent research shows that hypothetical thinking is not constrained by language and that most individuals who possess a certain level of education can think counterfactually (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Roese & Olson, 1995a).

Counterfactual Thinking Types

Counterfactuals differ in their characteristics. Previous research has classified counterfactual thoughts according to three criteria: direction of comparison, structure, and person of reference (Epstude & Roese, 2008; Roese, 1997, 2000). Along the dimension of direction, counterfactual thinking can be either upward or downward (Roese, 1994, 1997; Roese & Olson, 1993b). Upward counterfactuals compare a present outcome to a better alternative (e.g., I should have taken my medication). Downward counterfactuals, on the other hand, compare the present outcome with a worse alternative (e.g., At least I didn’t have to deal with medication side effects!). The dimension of structure refers to the addition or subtraction of an antecedent (action) from the present state (Roese, 1994, 1997; Roese & Olson, 1993b). Additive counterfactuals, then, add antecedents to reconstruct reality (e.g., If I had taken my medication, I would be at home enjoying the holidays with my family now); whereas subtractive counterfactuals remove antecedents (e.g., If I had not taken my medication, I wouldn’t be experiencing all these side effects now!). According to the person of reference criteria, counterfactuals may focus on the actions or features of oneself (e.g., I should have taken my medication) or of other people (e.g., My colleague should have taken their medication as the doctor advised) (Epstude & Roese, 2008). The literature also discusses counterfactual subtypes derived from the combination of the direction and structure criteria (i.e., upward-additive, upward-subtractive, downward-additive; and downward-subtractive; Roese & Olson, 1995b). For example, an upward-additive counterfactual compares a present outcome to a better alternative by adding an antecedent: “If only I had taken my medication as advised by my doctor, I would not need surgery now.”

Theoretical Explanations of the Psychological Process of Counterfactual Thinking

Several theoretical traditions have been used to explain the role of counterfactual thinking for individuals.

Norm Theory

Early accounts have described counterfactual thoughts as dysfunctional, as instances of error, bias, or difficulty in coping (Gleicher et al., 1990; Kahneman & Tversky, 1982; Landman, 1987; Macrae, 1992; Miller et al., 1990; Miller & McFarland, 1986; Sherman & McConnell, 1995). Norm theory (Kahneman & Miller, 1986) is one account that portrayed counterfactuals as a form of biased thinking and decision making. Norms involve a comparison between a cognitive standard and an experiential outcome. When this comparison suggests that the outcome does not meet the expectation (i.e., the situation is unusual), counterfactuals are likely generated. For example, if a student who usually gets high grades (the standard) earns a lower grade than typical (the experiential outcome), that student may try to mentally undo the outcome by thinking that if he had been well rested during the exam, he would have scored an A. Norm theory proposes that the ease of imagining a different outcome determines the alternatives created through counterfactual thought. In other words, people create counterfactuals that are biased toward highly available exemplars of similar past events. Availability, however, does not imply that the exemplars activated constitute sound judgments. For example, in response to a low grade, the student reasoned that, with more rest, he would have scored an A. This reasoning is based on the student’s past experiences in which sleeping well prior to an exam was associated with good grades. However, it is possible that in the present case the issue was caused by not studying enough or not understanding the topic rather than by a connection between rest and performance. In this sense, then, counterfactual thinking may sometimes result in biased reasoning and decision making.

Mental Models

Mental models have been built on exemplar-activation and approached counterfactual thinking in terms of how particular pieces of information are chained together to form inferences (Byrne, 1997, 2002, 2005; Byrne & McEleney, 2000; Feeney & Handley, 2006). According to this perspective, individuals show predictable tendencies in the aspects of the past that they attempt to undo through counterfactual thinking. Specifically, people mentally undo events within their control that are recent, intentional, or exceptional. For example, an individual is more likely to generate a counterfactual about an event that happened today as compared to one that occurred two weeks ago. Also, people try to undo events that occurred as a result of an intentional decision (e.g., an accident that occurred because one decided to speed on the way home) but not events that took place due to uncontrollable circumstances (e.g., an accident that occurred due to a hurricane). Finally, counterfactuals are more likely in unusual situations (e.g., getting into an accident due to having taken an unusual route home) compared to usual situations (e.g., getting into an accident while driving on the usual route home).

Functional Theory

The functional perspective departs from early views and looks at how counterfactuals and afferent cognitive processes actually benefit people by helping them effectively address similar situations that might occur in the future (Epstude & Roese, 2008; Roese, 1994, 1997; Roese & Olson, 1995b). A functional interpretation of a psychological process involves two main ideas: first, the process is activated by a particular need or deficit; and, second, the process leads to changes that address that need or deficit (Epstude & Roese, 2008). The psychological process of counterfactual thinking meets both of these requirements. First, counterfactuals are usually evoked by a negative event. Second, counterfactuals provide prescriptions for efficacious future behavior (Johnson & Sherman, 1990). For example, the thought that if I had taken my medication as prescribed by my doctor, I would not be in the hospital now might provoke negative feelings, but it also contains the suggestion that in the future I should follow my doctor’s advice. Counterfactuals, then, help people avoid similar unpleasant experiences in the future by suggesting causal relations and thus, offering behavioral alternatives for future similar situations (when I am in this situation again, I should do X because then I would avoid the negative outcome that previously caused my distress). Therefore, counterfactuals serve a preparative function. Counterfactual thinking also serves an affect regulation function by making people feel better about their current situation. Specifically, downward counterfactuals compare reality with a worse alternative. For example, an individual that is hospitalized after failing to take their medication as prescribed might feel better by thinking that at least he/she is alive.

The functionality of counterfactuals, however, has its limitations. For example, individuals with severe depressive symptoms have been shown to engage in less reasonable and less feasible counterfactual thinking (Markman & Miller, 2006). As a result, these individuals may actually experience reduced perceptions of control about future situations. In addition to depression, procrastination tendencies and perfectionism are two other personal attributes that have been linked to maladaptive counterfactual thinking; specifically, procrastinators have a tendency to engage in downward counterfactuals which are less conducive to behavioral change (Sirois, 2004). For perfectionists, due to their excessive preoccupation with outcome quality, counterfactual thinking generation actually increases their distress (Sirois, Monforton, & Simpson, 2010).

Counterfactual Thinking Generation

Counterfactual thoughts are more likely to be generated in certain situations rather than others. The experience of negative affect is one of the most common triggers of counterfactual thinking (Roese, 1994, 1997; Roese & Hur, 1997). Specifically, counterfactual thinking is often generated in response to the negative affect that accompanies substandard outcomes. Negative affect signals to the individual that something is not right (i.e., an outcome is different from the one desired) and directs the individual’s attention to addressing the cause of the negative affect. Counterfactual thinking, among other cognitive responses, helps identify the source of negative affect and, even though it cannot change the present situation, it offers suggestions about future corrective behaviors to avoid the current unfortunate situation. A large body of research supports the idea that affect fosters counterfactual thinking generation, in general, and that counterfactual thoughts are generated more frequently following negative rather than positive outcomes, both spontaneously and when individuals are instructed to generate such thoughts (e.g., Davis & Lehman, 1995; Sanna & Turley, 1996).

Specific emotions have also been linked to counterfactual thinking production. In a study by Niedenthal and colleagues (1994), participants read about situations evocative of guilt and shame or described personal experiences of guilt and shame. Participants were then instructed to generate counterfactuals to undo the shame or guilt events. Counterfactuals used for undoing shame situations were focused on altering qualities of the self (e.g., if only I was less forgetful), whereas counterfactuals used for undoing guilt situations focused on altering behaviors (e.g., if only I had taken my medication). The relationship between specific emotions and spontaneously generated counterfactual thoughts (i.e., in the absence of an experimental instruction to generate counterfactual thoughts) has not been studied, however.

Outcome closeness has also been found to stimulate counterfactual thinking (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982; Kahneman & Varey, 1990; Roese, 1997). Outcome closeness is defined as the perceived proximity to reaching a goal. This proximity can be temporal (e.g., missing your flight by 10 vs. 30 minutes), physical (e.g., missing the golf hole by 200 centimeters versus 1 meter), or numerical (e.g., having marked “38” on your lottery ticket when “39” was the lucky number). In research studies, having nearly avoided a negative outcome (i.e., forgetting to submit an insurance policy 3 days versus 6 months before a fire) was associated with increased spontaneous counterfactual thought generation (Meyers-Levy & Maheswaran, 1992).

Deviations from normality or abnormal events, compared to normal ones, are also more likely to result in counterfactual thinking (Kahneman & Miller, 1986). This is because counterfactual thinking enables shifting the deviation back to its normal state. For example, if an accident occurred because of one’s driving on a new route to work, then the counterfactual generated will likely undo the outcome (the accident) by stating that the outcome would have been different if the normal/usual route to work had been chosen. Numerous studies provide support for the idea that counterfactual content is more prolific in response to abnormal occurrences, both spontaneously and when study participants are instructed to generate such thoughts (e.g., Buck & Miller, 1994; Kahneman & Miller, 1986; Kahneman & Tversky, 1982; Miller, Taylor, & Buck, 1991; Miller, Turnbull, & McFarland, 1990; Wells, Taylor, & Turtle, 1987).

Counterfactuals are also more likely to follow actions than inactions (Kahneman & Miller, 1986). Whereas inactions are perceived as normal (because they preserve the status quo), actions are seen as abnormal, as deviations from the norm (Kahneman & Miller, 1986). Put differently, people assume that outcomes are the result of actions (and not of inactions) (Gavanski & Wells, 1989). The importance of action versus inaction in the generation of counterfactual thought has received some empirical support (Gleicher, Kost, Baker, Strathman, Richman, & Sherman, 1990; Landman, 1987; Miller et al., 1990; Turley, Sanna, & Reiter, 1995). However, the findings of such studies have been criticized on grounds of methodology (see N’gbala & Branscombe, 1995 for a review), and the idea that counterfactual thinking is more likely to follow actions as opposed to inactions has been considered an oversimplification (Roese, 1997).

Another factor that stimulates counterfactual generation is the perceived controllability of the event; specifically, controllable events are more easily undone that uncontrollable events (Girotto, Legrenzi, & Rizzo, 1991; Miller et al., 1990; N’gbala & Branscombe, 1995). For example, one can cogitate on how outcomes would have been different if having taken their medication, but one cannot undo the occurrence of an earthquake. Therefore, individuals think counterfactually in response to actions that could have been manipulated or avoided to circumvent the outcome. Several studies have found support for this idea (Davis & Lehman, 1995; Davis, Lehman, Silver, Wortman, & Ellard, 1996; Mandel & Lehman, 1996).

Consequences of Counterfactual Thinking

Theoretical Perspectives

Research has documented a wide range of psychological consequences that can be attributed to counterfactual thinking (Gleicher et al., 1995; Landman, 1987; Miller, Turnbull, & McFarland, 1989; Miller & Taylor, 1995; Olson, Roese, & Zanna, 1996; Roese & Olson, 1993a). Specifically, counterfactuals have implications for affect, behavior, information processing, perceptions, and responses to persuasive communication. Importantly, studies that have looked at these effects have often not included a control condition (i.e., a condition in which no counterfactual thought was included in a message or generated by participants), but have rather compared effects among different types of counterfactual thoughts (e.g., downward versus upward). Studies that have included control conditions, though few in number, have consistently found an advantage of the counterfactual condition over the no counterfactual condition. Therefore, it appears that counterfactuals do have an impact, though future research should routinely, rather than sporadically, include control conditions to determine the robustness of the counterfactual thinking effects. Before delving into the consequences of counterfactual thinking, however, it is important to first understand the various theoretical perspectives that have been put forward to account for them.

Contrast and Causal Inference Effects

Early writings have proposed contrast effects and causal inference effects as underlying mechanisms for the psychological consequences of counterfactual thinking (Roese, 1997; Roese & Olson, 1995b, 1996). Contrast effect explanations have their roots in research on social comparison (Festinger, 1954). According to this area of reasoning, individuals compare themselves to others in an effort to self-evaluate. This self-evaluation occurs with the goal of self-improvement when individuals compare themselves to better others or of self-protection when individuals choose others that are worse than them as comparison (McMullen, Markman, & Gavanski, 1995). Similarly, in the counterfactual thinking realm, when individuals are dissatisfied with an outcome, they will undo that outcome by imagining how things could have been better, thus, by generating upward counterfactuals; when individuals are satisfied with an outcome and wish to enjoy the present, they will generate thoughts about how things could have been worse, i.e., downward counterfactuals (Markman et al., 1993). The contrast effect underlies the affective function of counterfactuals as it makes individuals to feel better or worse about themselves (Medvec & Savitsky, 1997; Roese, 2000; Roese & Olson, 1995a). Findings from a study in which Olympic athletes were observed constitute a nice example of the contrast effect mechanism (Medvec, Madey, & Gilovich, 1995). In this study, silver medalists reported less satisfaction than bronze medalists. The authors reasoned that for a silver medalist, an upward counterfactual that “I almost came in first’ is salient, whereas for a bronze medalist, a downward counterfactual that “I could have missed the podium” is salient. The direction of the counterfactual is related to the closest crossing into a new category. In other words, for the bronze medalist not having received a medal at all is the closest category; however, the same is not true for the silver medalist for whom the gold medal category is naturally closer.

Causal inference effects occur when a counterfactual, through its content, emphasizes the causal link between an antecedent behavior and a desired outcome (Epstude & Roese, 2008; Roese, 1997). For example, to say that if I had taken my medication, I would now be healthy is to underscore the causal impact of medication on health. Causal inference effects underlie the preparative function of counterfactuals, meaning that the identification of an antecedent as responsible for a particular outcome suggests that its removal in future similar situations would lead to a different outcome (Wells & Gavanski, 1989). Overall, causal inference effects have been said to be more beneficial to the individual due to their emphasis on corrective action (Epstude & Roese, 2008; Roese, 1997). Contrast effects may have both beneficial and detrimental consequences, depending on the direction of the counterfactual generated (see the bronze versus silver medalist example above).

Content-Neutral and Content-Specific Mechanisms

More recent writings have focused on the content of counterfactuals and have suggested content-neutral and content-specific mechanisms to explain the psychological consequences of counterfactuals (Epstude & Roese, 2008). These mechanisms may occur independently or interactively. The content-specific pathway explains how counterfactuals influence behaviors through a transfer of information from the counterfactual inference to behavioral intentions and ultimately to behaviors (Epstude & Roese, 2008). For example, if one is unsatisfied with their health, one might reason that “If only I had eaten less fast food, I would have lost a few pounds by now.” This counterfactual indicates the behavior that should be performed in the future for achieving the desired outcome (e.g., eat less fast food). Thus, the content of the counterfactual (e.g., I should have eaten less fast food) is used for changing future behaviors (e.g., I will eat less fast food in the future) through a transfer of information from the counterfactual thought to future behavioral intentions and actual behavior (Epstude & Roese, 2008).

The content-neutral mechanism explains how different types of counterfactual thoughts influence attention, cognition, and motivation; it looks at how the information is handled and at how that handling of information influences behavior (Epstude & Roese, 2008). Three main content-neutral effects have been documented: mind-sets, motivation, and self-inference. A counterfactual mind-set refers to the fact that counterfactual thinking ignites specific cognitive operations, such as increased attention to certain types of information or the use of some inferential strategies as opposed to others. For example, a subtractive counterfactual mind-set (i.e., a focus on the mental deletion of elements that led to an outcome) fosters analytical thinking, whereas an additive counterfactual mind-set (i.e., a focus on the mental additions of elements not present in reality) increases generation of creative ideas (Markman, Lindberg, Kray, & Galinsky, 2007). Motivation effects result from the negative affect that accompanies upward counterfactual thinking and that motivates behavior change to alleviate the uncomfortable feeling (Markman & McMullen, 2003; Markman, McMullen, Elizaga, & Mizoguchi, 2006; McMullen & Markman, 2000). An implication of motivation effects is a change in mode of information processing as understood in terms of regulatory focus theory (Higgins, 1997). Specifically, additive counterfactuals activate a promotion focus, whereas subtractive counterfactuals activate a prevention focus (Pennington & Roese, 2003; Roese, 1999). The influence of counterfactuals on behavior, then, is mediated by the activation of distinct regulatory focus patterns. Finally, counterfactuals may have an effect on inferences about the self in terms of efficacy, mastery, and overconfidence (Roese, 1999). For example, in a study by Nasco & Marsh (1999), generating upward counterfactuals following a test resulted in higher perceived control regarding future testing situations.

Effects of Counterfactual Thinking on Affect and Emotion

Whereas affect has been discussed as a precursor to counterfactual thinking, the generation of counterfactual thoughts also amplifies the affect that one is experiencing. The affective consequences of counterfactual thinking are often described in terms of positive and negative affect and are explained in terms of contrast effects. Upward counterfactuals, by showing how things could have been better, amplify negative affect (Sherman & McConnell, 1995). Downward counterfactuals, on the other hand, by showing how things might have been worse, are typically associated with increase in positive affect (Mandel, 2003; Roese, 1997).

Some researchers have linked specific positive emotions to specific types of counterfactuals. Using the causal inference mechanism as a basis, these scholars proposed that a particular antecedent-consequent link and their specific causal implications may result in different negative emotions (Kahneman & Miller, 1986; Roese, 1997). Regret, for example, is an emotion that frequently accompanies counterfactuals generated by mutating a controllable action attributed to the self (e.g., If I had driven on the usual way home, I wouldn’t have had an accident) (Kahneman, 1995). Guilt follows counterfactuals in which one’s behavior is altered (e.g., If only I had eaten better, I wouldn’t have developed ulcer), whereas shame is more likely to follow counterfactuals in which aspects of the self are altered (e.g., If only I were stronger willed, I wouldn’t have relapsed and smoked again) (Niedenthal, Tangney, & Gavanski, 1994).

Downward counterfactuals have been linked to increases in positive emotions, such as relief (Mandel, 2003 or happiness (Johnson, 1986). In some cases, however, downward counterfactuals may also amplify negative emotions through an assimilation mechanism. Assimilation occurs when thinking about how things could have been worse (i.e., a downward counterfactual) makes an individual feel negative affect, rather than positive affect (Epstude & Roese, 2008). For example, if a threatening scenario contained in a downward counterfactual (e.g., I could have died because of not taking my medication but I didn’t) is perceived as likely to happen in the future, the individual might experience anxiety rather than regret (e.g., I feel bad thinking about how things could have been worse and about how they can turn out that way in the future) (Mandel, 2003; McMullen & Markman, 2000).

Effects of Counterfactual Thinking on Behavior/Behavioral Intentions

The causal inference mechanism and the content-specific pathway have been frequently used to explain the influence of counterfactuals on behavior and behavioral intentions. First, by imagining alternative realities, individuals identify the choice or behavior that caused the negative outcome (e.g., If I had taken my medication, I wouldn’t be in the hospital now; thus, not having taken my medication caused my hospitalization). Second, the content of the counterfactual contains suggestions for the actions that need to be taken in the future to change the present negative outcome (e.g., In the future, I should take my medication to avoid being hospitalized).

Research also suggests that certain types of counterfactual thoughts are more likely to have an impact on subsequent behavior (Roese, 1994; Roese & Olson, 1995b). In terms of direction, upward counterfactuals (thoughts of “if only”), as opposed to downward counterfactuals, have been found to have a significant influence on future behaviors due to their focus on corrective actions that may facilitate future success (Roese, 1994). Downward counterfactuals (thoughts of “well at least”), however, are less likely to significantly influence behavior, given that they do not focus on what needs to be changed to achieve future success (Roese, 1994). This prediction, however, may be more applicable to certain behavioral contexts than others. For example, in a study examining the impact of counterfactual generation on smokers’ willingness to take a lung-capacity test, upward counterfactuals failed to influence behaviors, contradicting past work (Page & Colby, 2003). The researchers looked into the behavioral alternatives that participants generated and concluded that most of them revolved around not smoking (e.g., if only I hadn’t smoked, then my health would be better). This alternative, however, is not at all novel and it has constituted the theme of numerous past health interventions. Therefore, the authors concluded, elaborating on a less-than-novel behavioral alternative would have little impact on actual behaviors.

In terms of structure, both theory and research suggest that additive counterfactuals are more efficient in changing behavior than subtractive counterfactuals (e.g., Page & Colby, 2003). Additive counterfactuals, through their focus on ways to avoid the recurrence of a negative outcome, help establish paths to future success. Moreover, as argued by Roese (1994), additive counterfactuals allow individuals to think of behavioral alternatives outside of the original event and thus, encourage individuals to generate more creative and more meaningful to oneself solutions for future similar scenarios. Subtractive counterfactuals, on the other hand, contain no suggestion for future action, given that they merely remove an antecedent from the original event (Roese, 1994; Roese & Olson, 1993a).

Moderators of the Effect of Counterfactual Thinking on Behavior

Behavioral consequences of counterfactual thinking have also been found to be moderated by factors that are conceptually linked to or part of the psychological process of counterfactual thinking, such as self-evaluation motives and psychological distance (McCrea, 2008; Sanna, 1997; Smallman & McCulloch, 2012). Given that counterfactual thinking involves evaluating one’s progress toward important goals (Roese, 1997), counterfactuals have important implications for judging the self (McCrea, 2008). Thus, one moderator of the impact of counterfactual thinking on behavior relates to self-evaluation motives. Two main self-evaluation motives are self-improvement (i.e., the desire to identify aspect about the self that can be improved in the future) and self-enhancement and protection (i.e., the desire to positively evaluate oneself and increase one’s self-esteem). An individual’s interest in either self-improvement or self-enhancement has different motivational consequences, such that the former is associated with increased future persistence in achieving a goal (Bandura, 1977; Weiner, 1986), whereas the latter is associated with blame shifting in order to preserve self-esteem (Weiner, 1986). Depending on which of these two motives is activated, then, the effect of counterfactuals on behavior will vary. Specifically, when self-improvement motives are active, the general positive influence of counterfactuals on behavior will be fulfilled and improved future performance will be observed; however, when the self-enhancement motives are active, counterfactual thoughts may be used to excuse poor performance and protect one’s self-esteem, without any effect on future behaviors (McCrea, 2008).

Psychological distance has also been found to moderate the relationship between counterfactuals and behavior. According to construal level theory (Liberman & Trope, 1998), people perceive events as varying in several types of psychological distance: temporal distance (time), spatial distances, social distances, or hypothetical distances (imagining that an event is likely or unlikely). Relevant to counterfactual thinking is that an event that is perceived as temporally close is easier to imagine in detail than an event that is considered to be distant in time; similarly, a hypothetically close event is perceived as more likely to happen than one that is hypothetically distant (Smallman & McCulloch, 2012). A counterfactual influences future behavior by identifying the past behavior that should be changed to alter the outcome (e.g., if only I had eaten less fast food) and by offering alternative behaviors that may improve the outcome in the future (e.g., I should eat less fast food) (Roese, 1997). Behavioral modification occurs to the extent that individuals consider it possible and probable. Connecting this information to psychological distance and perception, when the past and future events included in a counterfactual are temporally and hypothetically close, individuals will (a) more easily imagine the behavior to be changed and (b) see that behavior as more probable and feasible (Smallman & McCulloch, 2012).

In support of this reasoning, Smallman and McCulloch found that negative events in the recent past (i.e., yesterday) versus distant past (i.e., a year ago) facilitated relevant behavioral intention judgments. Participants in their study imagined getting a sunburn the day before versus a year ago. They were then exposed to either a counterfactual statement (i.e., I should have worn sunscreen) versus a control factual statement (i.e., In the past, I worn sunscreen), both including an action meant to avoid the negative outcome from re-occurring (i.e., wearing sunscreen). Participants decided whether this action was something that could have changed the outcome of the event (getting a sunburn) by pressing a key labeled “yes” or “no” to indicate their decision. The time it took them to decide constituted the behavioral intention judgment measure. Individuals in the recent past counterfactual condition, compared to those in the control condition, had lower reaction times for the decision task; however, there was no difference between participants in the distant past counterfactual condition and those in the control condition. Similarly, when participants were asked whether they would be likely to perform the action described in the counterfactual statement in the near or distant future (i.e., “If this happens next week I will wear sunscreen” versus “If this happens next year I will wear sunscreen”), individuals in the near future condition, as opposed to a control condition, were faster in indicating that they would be likely to perform the action to avoid the negative outcome from re-occurring; no difference was observed between the distant future and control conditions. In other words, functional counterfactual thinking was sensitive to changes in the relevant behavioral intention’s temporal distance, such that counterfactual judgments facilitated behavioral intentions set to occur in the near but not distant future.

Effects of Counterfactual Thinking on Perception

As mentioned previously, counterfactuals not only signal what an individual has done wrong in the past, they also suggest what can be done right in the future through a content-specific pathway. This process has been found to influence individual perceptions of self-efficacy, perceptions of preparedness for future tasks, and perceptions of control (Arora, Haynie, & Laurence, 2011; McMullen, Markman, & Gavanski, 1995; Tal-Or, Boninger, Poran, & Gleicher, 2004).

Self-efficacy refers to one’s belief that one has the necessary abilities to successfully engage in and accomplish a task (Bandura, 1986). Self-efficacy is an important antecedent to behavior and a strong predictor of performance (Bandura, 1989). As such, counterfactual thinking, given its enhancing effect on both intentions to perform success-facilitating behaviors and actual performance (Roese, 1997), is likely to influence perceptions of self-efficacy, as well. In a study investigating the relationship between counterfactuals and self-efficacy, Tal’Or and his colleagues (2004) found that generation of upward counterfactuals, compared to no counterfactual generation, enhanced self-efficacy; whereas downward counterfactuals, compared to no counterfactual and to upward counterfactual generation, decreased self-efficacy. The positive effect of upward counterfactuals on self-efficacy can be explained by the fact that upward counterfactuals provide explicit information about what behaviors ought to be performed in the future for achieving success; this explicit information should increase individuals’ confidence in their abilities and likelihood of successfully reaching a goal. Downward counterfactuals, however, do not provide this type of information, and thus, do not provide any assurance of future success.

Upward counterfactuals may not always be beneficial to one’s perceptions of self-efficacy. In an entrepreneurial context, Arora and associates (2011) found that, as the intensity, frequency, and unpleasantness of counterfactual thinking increased, entrepreneurs’ self-efficacy decreased. This negative effect can be better understood as mediated by negative affect, though the authors of the study did not frame it as such. Specifically, the authors operationalized the intensity and unpleasantness of counterfactuals as the intensity and unpleasantness of one frequent negative emotion that accompanies upward counterfactuals, regret (Roese, 1997). Therefore, as counterfactuals led to more frequent, intense, and unpleasant feelings of regret, participants’ perceptions of self-efficacy decreased.

Sanna (1997) examined the role of self-efficacy as a moderator of reactions to downward and upward counterfactuals. By manipulating individuals’ self-efficacy, he observed that, at high levels of self-efficacy, the negative affect typically associated with upward counterfactuals was attenuated and people reported feeling better prepared for the future. At low levels of self-efficacy, the reverse was true: negative affect remained high and participants reported feeling unprepared in the aftermath of upward counterfactuals.

Two studies have looked at how perceptions of control are influenced by counterfactual thinking. Participants in McMullen, Markman, and Gavanski’s studies (1995) who imagined upward counterfactuals perceived themselves as having more control over the target situation than did participants who imagined downward counterfactuals. Similarly, Nasco and Marsh (1999) found upward counterfactual generation to be positively correlated with perceived changes in one’s circumstances and to increased perceptions of control.

Counterfactual Thinking and Information Processing

Counterfactual thoughts are a problem-solving process involving careful discerning between good and bad solutions to a problem (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Krishnamurthy & Sivaraman, 2002). Because engaging in counterfactual thinking implies mentally attempting to simulate scenarios in which an outcome would be different, individuals may be more inclined to carefully process subsequent information encountered in a similar context. These effects can be explained through the content-neutral mechanisms previously described.

Research has found support for the effects of counterfactual thinking on information processing patterns. Drawing from the Elaboration Likelihood Model, Krishnamurthy and Sivaraman (2002) manipulated the quality of the argument contained in an advertising message. Prior to message exposure, participants read a story of an unfortunate computer purchase. Participants where then instructed to engage in upward counterfactual thinking or not. Those who engaged in upward counterfactual thinking after reading the story processed subsequent computer promotion messages more systematically than participants who did not engage in counterfactual thinking (control condition). Thus, these participants were more sensitive to argument quality than participants who did not generate counterfactual thoughts, such that they were more persuaded by strong arguments than by weak ones. Krishnamurthy & Sivaraman, however, did not explore whether these effects would be observed with counterfactuals other than upward counterfactuals.

Building upon this research, Aboulnasr and Sivaraman (2010) investigated the mechanism through which counterfactuals lead to increased information processing. Their findings indicate that motivation to process (i.e., a content-neutral mechanism) mediated this relationship: participants who engaged in upward counterfactual thinking (as opposed to downward counterfactual thinking) regarding a negative diet-related event reported higher motivation to process the information contained on food nutrition labels that they read after counterfactual generation; motivation to process nutrition information then led to greater influence of the food product’s nutrition label in overall product evaluation. The influence of counterfactuals on motivation to process information and product evaluation persisted at a seven-day follow-up.

Effects of Counterfactual Thinking on Message Persuasiveness

The intersection of counterfactual thinking and persuasion has received scant research attention. Overall, studies in this area have considered three major message design strategies/types (i.e., message self-regulatory focus, message framing, and narrative messages) and have analyzed how counterfactuals interfered with the persuasiveness of these messages (Baek, Shen, & Reid, 2013; Nan, 2008; Tal-Or, Boninger, Poran, & Gleicher, 2004). Similar to the effects of counterfactuals on information processing, the influence of counterfactuals thinking on persuasion can also be accounted for by the content-neutral pathway.

Nan (2008) investigated the influence of counterfactual thinking on ad persuasiveness through the motivational priming process. According to the self-regulatory theory (Higgins, 1997, 2002), individuals possess a self-regulatory system that regulates behaviors toward personally relevant goals. There are two types of self-regulatory goals: promotional and preventional goals. Individuals may hold both types of goals at the same time; however, one type of goal may be more accessible or salient than the other. Promotional goals are associated with a focus on hopes, accomplishments, and advancement; whereas preventional goals are associated with a focus on safety, losses, and responsibility (Higgins, 2002). In her study, Nan distinguished between positive and negative (i.e., upward-additive versus upward-subtractive) counterfactuals and provided evidence that positive counterfactuals made promotional goals more accessible, whereas negative counterfactuals made preventional goals more salient. Moreover, drawing from the goal compatibility idea (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986), Nan showed that matching the appeal of a subsequent ad with the goal type elicited by positive versus negative counterfactuals increased the persuasive effect of those messages. Specifically, when individuals were instructed to generate positive counterfactual thinking prior to ad exposure, promotion-focused advertising messages were rated more favorably than prevention-focused messages. The opposite was true for participants who generated negative counterfactuals prior to ad exposure, such that prevention-focused messages were more persuasive for this group of individuals.

Baek and associates (2013) examined the interaction effects of message framing and counterfactual thinking on attitudes and behavioral intentions in a binge-drinking context. Their research focused on additive versus subtractive counterfactual thinking and their activation of a promotion focus (i.e., a focus on hopes and accomplishments) and a prevention focus (i.e., a focus on safety and responsibilities), respectively (Epstude & Roese, 2008; Pennington & Roese, 2003; Roese, 1999). Given that promotion-focused individuals are motivated by nurturance and self-improvement, whereas prevention-focused individuals are motivated by safety and security (Aaker & Lee, 2001; Higgins, 1997), the authors hypothesized that gain-framed messages would be more persuasive for individuals who engaged in additive counterfactual thinking prior to message exposure, whereas loss-framed messages would be more persuasive for individuals who engaged in subtractive counterfactual thinking. Their findings supported this hypothesis. Interestingly, however, the persuasive effect manifested itself only at behavioral level (i.e., individuals reported lower binge drinking intentions); participants’ attitudes were not affected (i.e., individuals’ attitudes toward binge drinking were not significantly altered by message exposure).

Finally, counterfactual thinking as a mechanism in narrative persuasion was examined in two experiments reported by Tal-Or and colleagues (2004). This study is the only one in which counterfactuals were analyzed as part of a persuasive message, rather than as generated prior to exposure to an actual persuasive message. Participants in both experiments watched a video depicting the story of a person severely injured in a car accident. In the first experiment, counterfactuals were either included in the narrative or not (control condition). When counterfactuals were explicitly stated in the narrative, participants’ attitudes toward traffic safety rules were more positive than when counterfactuals were absent from the narrative. This effect was limited by the reference contained in the counterfactual such that the persuasive effect of the narrative was higher when the self, rather than another person, was the object of blame in the counterfactual. In the second experiment, some participants were asked to generate their own counterfactuals, whereas other participants were asked to simply review the counterfactuals already stated in the narrative. Self-generated counterfactuals led to more resilient attitude change, as compared to spoon-fed counterfactuals.

Discussion of the Literature

Counterfactual thinking is a pervasive mode of thinking that has been heavily studied in psychology and more recently in the organizational and marketing domains (e.g., Arora et al., 2011; Epstude & Roese, 2008; Roese, 2000). One stream of research has focused on the dysfunctional consequences of counterfactual thinking, however, a second stream of research has emphasized the adaptive and coping benefits of counterfactuals (e.g., Kahneman & Miller, 1986; Roese, 1997). Counterfactuals affect behavior through a causal-inference mechanism: thinking that “If I had given up smoking, I would be healthier now” means recognizing the impact of smoking on health or, in other words, understanding the causal link between smoking and achieving a desired outcome (i.e., being healthy). When confronted with similar situations (i.e., the goal of being healthy or of protecting one’s health), an individual will likely consider this causal link and perform the behavior that will result in the desired outcome (Roese, 1997). Additionally, the content of the counterfactual statement provides information about future behavior (If I want to do be healthier, I should give up bad habits such as smoking) (Epstude & Roese, 2008). Counterfactuals are also responsible for activating attentional, cognitive, and motivational processes that alter behavior, perceptions, and cognitions, independent of the specific information contained in the counterfactual. Research from psychology provides evidence for counterfactuals’ impact on information processing, regulatory focus, perceptions of self-efficacy and control in a variety of contexts (Epstude & Roese, 2008).

Research looking at the relationship between counterfactual thinking and persuasion has been less prolific and several questions pertaining to persuasion and counterfactual thinking await examination. First, counterfactuals’ role as a message design strategy versus their role in influencing message processing needs clarification. Prior studies have included counterfactuals in the actual message or they have asked participants to engage in counterfactual thinking prior or after message exposure. However, counterfactuals have been mainly treated as influencers of message processing and responses to messages. Future studies should make the distinction clearer and analyze its implications for persuasion.

Second, the impact of counterfactuals on other variables of interest to persuasion should also be researched. For example, in certain domains, such as health or finances, an individual’s risk perception is an important predictor of behavior. If and how counterfactuals are related to risk perception is an important topic for future research.

Third, the interplay between counterfactuals and emotions as it applies to individual processing of persuasive information represents a ripe area for study. Counterfactuals are both preceded by affect and amplify affective reactions (Roese, 1997). Future inquiries could investigate what emotions follow various types of counterfactual thinking and what role these emotions play in persuasion. Additionally, emotions, when compared to counterfactuals, may have distinct, even opposite effects on subsequent cognitions and behaviors. Analyzing how emotions interact with counterfactuals in shaping cognitions and behaviors is also an important endeavor.

Fourth, the impact of counterfactuals on attitudes in various contexts should be investigated. For example, what happens when an individual’s attitudes are counter to the content of a counterfactual thought (e.g., If I had used a condom, I wouldn’t have an STD now; but I strongly dislike using condoms). Social judgment theory (SJT; Sherif & Hovland, 1961) may provide useful insight on this matter. According to SJT, individuals perceive and evaluate an idea by comparing it with their perception of others’ attitude toward that idea. In other words, when people judge an idea, they factor in what they think is acceptable or unacceptable in general for other people. Thus, SJT suggests that an attitude can be best understood as an amalgam of three zones or latitudes. The latitude of acceptance contains ideas that a person considers reasonable and acceptable; the latitude of rejection contains ideas that a person sees as unreasonable and unacceptable; finally, the latitude of noncommitment comprises the range of ideas that a person sees as neither acceptable nor unacceptable. Messages are most likely to produce change when they fall in one’s latitude of noncommitment. A message that falls within one’s latitude of acceptance will produce less change due to assimilation effects: an individual will perceive that message to be closer to his/her existing position than it actually is and, thus, little net change will be observed. Similarly, a message that falls within one’s latitude of rejection will not be accepted due to contrast effects, whereby the individual will perceive the message to be farther away from his/her own position than it really is and, thus, reject it. Tying this back to counterfactual thinking, the thought contained in a counterfactual thought included in a persuasive message, will result in attitude and behavior change to the extent that it falls within an individual’s latitude of noncommitment. If the counterfactual thought, however, falls either within one’s latitude of rejection or acceptance, then that counterfactual is less likely to be persuasive due to contrast and assimilation effects, respectively. This conjecture constitutes an interesting and highly relevant empirical question for research on the persuasive power of counterfactual thinking.

Finally, future research should analyze how counterfactuals interact with other persuasive message properties, such as message source. Possibly, a low credibility source undermines the effect of a counterfactual thought on future behaviors because individuals would not want to follow the advice of someone they do not trust (e.g., Person A says that if only he hadn’t smoked, he wouldn’t have cancer now. But person A is not trustworthy).

Further Reading

Aboulnasr, K., & Sivaraman, A. (2010). Food for thought: The effect of counterfactual thinking on the use of nutrition information. Journal of Consumer Behavior, 9, 191–205.Find this resource:

Baek, T. H., Shen, L., & Reid, L. N. (2013). Effects of message framing in anti-binge drinking PSAs: The moderating role of counterfactual thinking. Journal of Health Communication, 18, 442–459.Find this resource:

Epstude, K., & Roese, N. J. (2008). The functional theory of counterfactual thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12, 168–192.Find this resource:

Krishnamurthy, P., & Sivaraman, A. (2002). Counterfactual Thinking and Advertising Responses. Journal of Consumer Research, 28, 650–658.Find this resource:

Nan, X. (2008). The pursuit of self-regulatory goals: How counterfactual thinking influences advertising persuasiveness. Journal of Advertising, 37, 17–27.Find this resource:

Page, C. M., & Colby, P. M. (2003). If only I hadn’t smoked: The impact of counterfactual thinking on a smoking-related behavior. Psychology and Marketing, 20, 955–976.Find this resource:

Roese, N. J. (1994). The functional basis of counterfactual thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 805–818.Find this resource:

Roese, N. J. (1997). Counterfactual thinking. Psychological Bulletin, 121, 133–148.Find this resource:

Roese, N. J. (1999). Counterfactual thinking and decision making. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 6, 570–578.Find this resource:

Roese, N. J. (2000). Counterfactual thinking and marketing: Introduction to the special issue. Psychology and Marketing, 17(4), 277–280.Find this resource:

Roese, N. J., & Hur, T. (1997). Affective determinants in counterfactual thinking. Social Cognition, 15, 274–290.Find this resource:

Roese, N. J., & Olson, J. M. (1993b). The structure of counterfactual thought. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19, 312–319.Find this resource:

Roese, N. J., & Olson, J. M. (1995a). Counterfactual thinking: A critical overview. In N. J. N. J. Roese & J. M. Olson (Eds.), What might have been: The social psychology of counterfactual thinking (pp. 1–55). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Find this resource:

Roese, N. J., & Olson, J. M. (1995b). Functions of counterfactual thinking. In N. J. Roese & J. M. Olson (Eds.), What might have been: The social psychology of counterfactual thinking (pp. 169–197). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Find this resource:

Roese, N. J., & Olson, J. M. (1995c). Outcome controllability and counterfactual thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 620–628.Find this resource:

Roese, N. J., & Olson, J. M. (1996). Counterfactuals, causal attributions, and the hindsight bias: A conceptual integration. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 32, 197–227.Find this resource:

Sanna, L. J. (1997). Self-efficacy and counterfactual thinking: Up a creek with and without a paddle. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 654–666.Find this resource:

Smallman, R., & McCulloch, K. C. (2012). Learning from yesterday’s mistakes to fix tomorrow’s problems: When functional counterfactual thinking and psychological distance collide. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 382–390.Find this resource:

Tal-Or, N., Boninger, D. S., Poran, A. & Gleicher, F. (2004). Counterfactual Thinking as a Mechanism in Narrative Persuasion. Human Communication Research, 30, 301–328.Find this resource:

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Roese, N. J. (2000). Counterfactual thinking and marketing: Introduction to the special issue. Psychology and Marketing, 17(4), 277–280.Find this resource:

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