Journal of Adult Development

, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 87–97 | Cite as

Missed opportunities: Psychological ramifications of counterfactual thought in midlife women

  • Janet Landman
  • Elizabeth A. Vandewater
  • Abigail J. Stewart
  • Janet E. Malley


Counterfactual thinking entails the process of imagining alternatives to reality—what might have been. The present study examines the frequency, content, and emotional and cognitive concomitants of counterfactual thinking about past missed opportunities in midlife women. At age 43, nearly two-thirds of the sample of educated adult women reported having missed certain opportunities at some time in their lives. Most of the counterfactual thoughts concerned missed opportunities for greater challenge in work. Emotional distress at age 33 did not predict later counterfactual thought. Instead, counterfactual thinking at age 43 was associated with concurrent emotional distress. However, acknowledging counterfactual thinking about the past was also associated with envisioning ways to change things for the better in the future. This suggests the possibility that the negative appraisal often entailed in counterfactual thinking may be associated with emotional distress in the short run but with motivational benefits in the long run, at least for middle-aged women.

Key words

Counterfactual thought emotion midlife women motivation work 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Alloy, L. B., & Abramson, L. Y. (1979). Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: Sadder but wiser?Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 108, 441–485.Google Scholar
  2. Alloy, L. B., & Abramson, L. Y. (1982). Learned helplessness, depression, and the illusion of control.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 1114–1126.Google Scholar
  3. Beck, A. T. (1982).Depression: Clinical, experimental, and theoretical aspects. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  4. Blaney, P. H. (1986). Affect and memory: A review.Psychological Bulletin, 99, 229–246.Google Scholar
  5. Chin, C. (1993).Any regrets? Let me think about it for a minute, or two, or three…. Regret and rumination. Honors Thesis in Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.Google Scholar
  6. Cohen, F., & Lazarus, R. S. (1979). Coping with the stresses of illness. In G. Stone, F. Cohen, & N. E. Adler (Eds.),Health psychology: A handbook (pp. 217–254). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  7. Davis, C. G., Lehman, D. R., Wortman, C. B., Silver, R. C., & Thompson, S. C. (1995). The undoing of traumatic life events.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 109–124.Google Scholar
  8. Eich, E. (1989). Mood dependent memory for internal versus external events.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 15, 443–445.Google Scholar
  9. Erikson, E. (1963).Childhood and society (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  10. Erskine, H. (1973). The polls: Hopes, fears, and regrets.Public Opinion Quarterly, 37, 132–145.Google Scholar
  11. Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1980).Belief, attitude, intention, and behavior. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.Google Scholar
  12. Freud, S. (1963). Mourning and melancholia.General psychological theory: Papers on metapsychology. New York: Collier Books. (Original work published 1917.)Google Scholar
  13. Gavanski, I., & Wells, G. L. (1989). Counterfactual processing of normal and exceptional events.Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 25, 314–325.Google Scholar
  14. Gleicher, F., Kost, K. A., Baker, S. M., Strathman, A., Richman, S. A., & Sherman, S. J. (1990). The role of counterfactual thinking in judgments of affect.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 16, 284–295.Google Scholar
  15. Goodman, N. (1973).Fact, fiction, and forecast (3d ed.) Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.Google Scholar
  16. Gregory, W. L., Cialdini, R. B., & Carpenter, K. M. (1982). Self-relevant scenarios as mediators of likelihood estimates and compliance: Does imagining make it so?Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 89–99.Google Scholar
  17. Hampshire, S. (1983).Morality and conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Helson, R., Mitchell, V., & Hart, B. (1985). Lives of women who became autonomous. Special issue: Conceptualizing gender in personality theory and research.Journal of Personality, 53, 257–285.Google Scholar
  19. Isen, A. M. (1984). Toward understanding the role of affect in cognition. In R. S. Wyer & T. K. Srull (Eds.),Handbook of social cognition (Vol. 13, pp. 179–236). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  20. Johnson, M. K., & Sherman, S. J. (1990). Constructing and reconstructing the past and the future in the present. In E. T. Higgins, & R. M. Sorentino (Eds),Handbook of motivation and cognition: Foundations of social behavior (Vol. 2, pp. 482–526). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  21. Kahneman, D., & Miller, D. T. (1986). Norm theory: Comparing reality to its alternatives.Psychological Review, 93, 136–153.Google Scholar
  22. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1982a). The psychology of preferences.Scientific American, 246, 160–173.Google Scholar
  23. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1982b) The simulation heuristic. In D. Kahneman, P. Slovic, & A. Tversky (Eds.),Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Kinnier, R. T., & Metha, A. T. (1989). Regrets and priorities at three stages of life.Counseling and Values, 33, 182–193.Google Scholar
  25. Kripke, S. A. (1980).Naming and necessity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Kuhl, J. (1981). Motivational and functional helplessness: The moderating effect of state- vs. action-orientation.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 155–170.Google Scholar
  27. Landman, J. (1987). Regret and elation following action and inaction: Affective responses to positive versus negative outcomes.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 13, 524–536.Google Scholar
  28. Landman, J. (1993).Regret: The persistence of the possible. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Landman, J. (1995). Through a glass darkly: Worldviews, counter-factual thought, and emotion. In N. J. Roese & J. M. Olson (Eds.),What might have been: The social psychology of counterfactual thinking (pp. 233–258). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  30. Landman, J., & Manis, J. D. (1992). What might have been: Counterfactual thought concerning personal decisions.British Journal of Psychology, 83, 473–477.Google Scholar
  31. Lehman, D. R., Wortman, C. B., & Williams, A. F. (1987). Long-term effects of losing a spouse or child in a motor-vehicle crash.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 218–231.Google Scholar
  32. Levinson, D., Darrow, C. N., Klein, E. B., Levinson, M. H., & McKee, B. (1978).The seasons of a man's life. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
  33. Lewinsohn, P. M., Mischel, W., Chaplin, W., & Barton, R. (1980). Social competence and depression: The role of illusory self-perceptions.Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 89, 203–212.Google Scholar
  34. Lewis, D. K. (1973).Counterfactuals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Macrae, C. N. (1992). A tale of two curries: Counterfactual thinking and accident-related judgments.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 84–87.Google Scholar
  36. Markman, K. D., Gavanski, I., Sherman, S. J., & McMullen, M. N. (1993). The mental simulation of better and worse possible worlds.Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 29, 87–109.Google Scholar
  37. Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves.American Psychologist, 41, 954–969.Google Scholar
  38. Metha, A. T., Kinnier, R. T., & McWhirter, E. H. (1989). A pilot study on the regrets and priorities of women.Psychology of Women Quarterly, 13, 167–174.Google Scholar
  39. Miller, D. T., Turnbull, W., & McFarland, C. (1990). Counterfactual thinking and social perception: Thinking about what might have been. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.),Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 23). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  40. Price, E. (1979).Leave your self alone. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.Google Scholar
  41. Roese, N. J., & Olson, J. M. (1993). Self-esteem and counterfactual thinking.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 199–206.Google Scholar
  42. Roese, N. J., & Olson, J. M. (Eds.). (1995).What might have been: The social psychology of counterfactual thinking. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  43. Ruvolo, A. P., & Markus, H. R. (1992). Possible selves and performance: The power of self-relevant imagery.Social Cognition, 10, 95–124.Google Scholar
  44. Sears, P. S. (1979). The Terman genetic studies of genius, 1922–1972. In A. H. Passow (Ed.),The gifted and the talented: Their education and development. The 78th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  45. Sherman, S. J., Skov, R. B., Hervitz, E. F., & Stock, C. B. (1981). The effects of explaining hypothetical future events: From possibility to probability to actuality and beyond.Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 17, 142–158.Google Scholar
  46. Shimanoff, S. B. (1985). Roles governing the verbal expression of emotions between married couples.The Western Journal of Speech Communication, 49, 147–165.Google Scholar
  47. Stewart, A. J. (1975).Longitudinal prediction from personality to life outcomes in college-educated women. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  48. Stewart, A. J. (1978). A longitudinal study of coping styles of self-defining and socially defined women.Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 46, 1079–1084.Google Scholar
  49. Stewart, A. J. (1980). Personality and situation in the prediction of women's life patterns.Psychology of Women Quarterly, 5, 195–206.Google Scholar
  50. Stewart, A. J., & Winter, D. G. (1974). Self-definition and social definition in women.Journal of Personality, 42, 238–259.Google Scholar
  51. Taylor, G. (1985).Pride, shame and guilt: Emotions of self-assessment. New York: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Taylor, S. (1983). Adjustment to threatening events: A theory of cognitive adaptation.American Psychologist, 38, 1161–1173.Google Scholar
  53. Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health.Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193–210.Google Scholar
  54. Teasdale, J. D., & Fogarty, J. J. (1979). Differential effects of induced mood on retrieval of pleasant and unpleasant memories from episodic memory.Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 88, 248–257.Google Scholar
  55. Teasdale, J. D., Taylor, R., & Fogarty, J. J. (1980). Effects of induced elation-depression on the accessibility of memories of happy and unhappy experiences.Behaviour Research and Therapy, 18, 339–340.Google Scholar
  56. Wells, G. L., & Gavanski, I. (1989). Mental simulation of causality.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 161–169.Google Scholar
  57. Wolitzer, M. (1990, July 15). Vulnerable lives. A review of A. Barnett,The body and its dangers and other stories. The New York Times Book Review, p. 17.Google Scholar
  58. Zung, W. W. (1965). A self-rating depression scale.Archives of General Psychiatry, 12, 63–70.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Janet Landman
    • 1
  • Elizabeth A. Vandewater
    • 2
  • Abigail J. Stewart
    • 1
  • Janet E. Malley
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyThe University of MichiganAnn Arbor
  2. 2.St. Lawrence UniversityCanton
  3. 3.Murray Research CenterRadcliffe CollegeCambridge

Personalised recommendations