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Missed opportunities: Psychological ramifications of counterfactual thought in midlife women

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Abstract

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.

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Landman, J., Vandewater, E.A., Stewart, A.J. et al. Missed opportunities: Psychological ramifications of counterfactual thought in midlife women. J Adult Dev 2, 87–97 (1995). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02251257

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