Spontaneous counterfactual thoughts and causal explanations

Thinking and Reasoning 12 (2):235 – 255 (2006)
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Abstract

We report two Experiments to compare counterfactual thoughts about how an outcome could have been different and causal explanations about why the outcome occurred. Experiment 1 showed that people generate counterfactual thoughts more often about controllable than uncontrollable events, whereas they generate causal explanations more often about unexpected than expected events. Counterfactual thoughts focus on specific factors, whereas causal explanations focus on both general and specific factors. Experiment 2 showed that in their spontaneous counterfactual thoughts, people focus on normal events just as often as exceptional events, unlike in directed counterfactual thoughts. The findings are consistent with the suggestion that counterfactual thoughts tend to focus on how a specific unwanted outcome could have been prevented, whereas causal explanations tend to provide more general causal information that enables future understanding, prediction, and intervention in a wide range of situations.

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