‘If only’ counterfactuals and the exceptionality effect

Abstract

People create counterfactual ‘if only’ alternatives that change exceptional actions to be normal (e.g., ‘if only he had placed his usual small bet he would have lost less money’). Two experiments show that this effect is reversed when an exceptional alternative leads to a better outcome. Experiment 1 demonstrated the standard effect: an exceptional action that leads to a bad outcome is changed to a usual one when an exceptional alternative does not lead to a better outcome. Experiment 2 reversed the effect: an exceptional action that leads to a good outcome is changed to an exceptional alternative when the alternative might have led to an even better outcome. Both experiments also show that participants construct different counterfactual thoughts when they think not only about the outcome but also about the decision the actor makes. The implications for theories of the counterfactual imagination are discussed.


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