You are here

Perceptions of What “Might Have Been” Lead to Counterfactual Thinking

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

In addition to influencing our judgments about ourselves and others, the salience and accessibility of information can have an important effect on our own emotions and self-esteem. Our emotional reactions to events are often colored not only by what did happen but also by what might have happened. If we can easily imagine an outcome that is better than what actually happened, then we may experience sadness and disappointment; on the other hand, if we can easily imagine that a result might have been worse that what actually happened, we may be more likely to experience happiness and satisfaction. The tendency to think about events according to what might have been is known as counterfactual thinking (Roese, 1997).

Imagine, for instance, that you were participating in an important contest, and you won the silver medal. How would you feel? Certainly you would be happy that you won, but wouldn’t you probably also be thinking a lot about what might have happened if you had been just a little bit better—you might have won the gold medal! On the other hand, how might you feel if you won the bronze medal (third place)? If you were thinking about the counterfactual (the “what might have been”), perhaps the idea of not getting any medal at all would have been highly accessible and so you’d be happy that you got the medal you did get.

Medvec, Madey, and Gilovich (1995) investigated exactly this idea by videotaping the responses of athletes who won medals in the 1992 summer Olympic Games. They videotaped the athletes both as they learned that they had won a silver or a bronze medal and again as they were awarded the medal. Then they showed these videos, without any sound, to people who did not know which medal which athlete had won. The raters indicated how they thought the athlete was feeling, on a range from “agony” to “ecstasy.” The results showed that the bronze medalists did indeed seem to be, on average, happier than were the silver medalists. Then, in a follow-up study, raters watched interviews with many of these same athletes as they talked about their performance. The raters indicated what we would expect on the basis of counterfactual thinking. The silver medalists often talked about their disappointments in having finished second rather than first, whereas the bronze medalists tended to focus on how happy they were to have finished third rather than fourth.

Figure 2.13 Olympic Medalists 
Does the bronze medalist look happier to you than the silver medalist? Medvec, Madey, and Gilovich (1995) found that, on average, bronze medalists were happier than silver medalists.  

Counterfactual thinking seems to be part of the human condition and has even been studied in numerous other social settings, including juries. For example, people who were asked to award monetary damages to others who had been in an accident offered them substantially more in compensation if they were almost not injured than they did if the accident seemed more inevitable (Miller, Turnbull, & McFarland, 1988).

Again, the moral of the story regarding the importance of cognitive accessibility is clear—in the case of counterfactual thinking, the accessibility of the potential alternative outcome can lead to some seemingly paradoxical effects.