Semifactual ''even if'' thinking

Thinking and Reasoning 8 (1):41 – 67 (2002)
Semifactual thinking about what might have been the same, e.g., ''even if Philip had not chosen the chocolate ice-cream sundae, he would have developed an allergic reaction'' has been neglected compared to counterfactual thinking about what might have been different, e.g., ''if only Philip had not chosen the chocolate ice-cream sundae, he would not have developed an allergic reaction''. We report the first systematic comparison of the two sorts of thinking in two experiments. The first experiment showed that counterfactual ''if only'' thoughts about an antecedent event lead people to judge the event to be more causally related to the outcome, whereas semifactual ''even if'' thoughts lead people to judge the antecedent event to be less causally related to the outcome. In addition, the experiment showed that generating counterfactual ''if only'' thoughts increases emotional reactions such as regret, whereas generating semifactual ''even if'' thoughts decreases such reactions. The second experiment, along with a replication experiment, showed that when people complete ''if only'' and ''even if'' sentence stems, they focus on different alternative antecedents to the outcome: ''if only'' thoughts focus on alternatives that would undo the outcome whereas ''even if'' thoughts focus on alternatives that would not undo it, from among a set of available alternative antecedents in which either all, some, or none would undo the outcome. The implications of the results for theories of thinking about what might have been are discussed.
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