Advertisement

Motivation and Emotion

, Volume 42, Issue 1, pp 17–36 | Cite as

Mental contrasting of counterfactual fantasies attenuates disappointment, regret, and resentment

  • Nora Rebekka Krott
  • Gabriele Oettingen
Original Paper
  • 351 Downloads

Abstract

Negative emotions elicited by positive counterfactuals about an alternative past—“if only” reconstructions of negative life events—are functional in preparing people to act when opportunities to restore the alternative past will arise. If the counterfactual past is lost, because restorative opportunities are absent, letting go of the negative emotions should be the better solution, sheltering people from feelings of distress. In six experimental studies, the self-regulation strategy of mental contrasting (Oettingen, European Review of Social Psychology 23:1–63, 2012) attenuated the negative emotions elicited by positive fantasies about a lost counterfactual past, specifically, disappointment, regret and resentment. Mental contrasting (vs. relevant control conditions) led people to feel less disappointed when evaluating their lost counterfactual past compared with their current reality, indicating reduced commitment to the lost counterfactual past (Studies 1, 2, 3, and 4), and it attenuated post-decisional regret and resentment (Studies 5 and 6). These findings held when participants were induced to focus on lost counterfactual pasts for which they were responsible (Studies 4 and 5), for which they blamed another person (Study 6), or for which they deemed no one responsible (Studies 2 and 3). The findings are relevant for building interventions that help people to come to terms with their lost counterfactual past.

Keywords

Mental contrasting Counterfactual thinking Fantasies Counterfactual emotions Emotion regulation 

Notes

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the members of the Educational Psychology and Motivation Lab at the University of Hamburg for making valuable comments on a previous version of this article.

Funding

This study was funded by German Research Foundation Grant awarded to Gabriele Oettingen (Grant number Oe-237/13-1).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

Nora Rebekka Krott and Gabriele Oettingen declares that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee of University of Hamburg (vote: AZ 72-2016) and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the studies.

References

  1. Beike, D. R., & Crone, T. S. (2008). When experienced regret refuses to fade: Regrets of action and attempting to forget open life regrets. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 1545–1550.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Beike, D. R., Markman, K. D., & Karadogan, F. (2009). What we regret most are lost opportunities: A theory of regret intensity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 385–397.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Berger, C. R. (1988). Planning, affect, and social action generation. In L. Donohue, H. E. Sypher, & Higgins, T. E. (Eds.), Communication, social cognition, and affect (pp. 93–116). Hillsdale, NY: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  4. Branscombe, N. R., Owen, S., Garstka, T. A., & Coleman, J. (1996). Rape and accident counterfactuals: Who might have done otherwise and would it have changed the outcome? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 26, 1042–1067.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Branscombe, N. R., Wohl, M. J. A., Owen, S., Allison, J. A., & N’gbala, A. (2003). Counterfactual thinking, blame assignment, and well-being in rape victims. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 25, 265–273.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Brehaut, J. C., O’Connor, A. M., Wood, T. J., Hack, T. F., Siminoff, L., Gordon, E., & Feldman-Stewart, D. (2003). Validation of a decision regret scale. Medical Decision Making, 23, 281–292.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Brunstein, J. C., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (1996). Effects of failure on subsequent performance: The importance of self-defining goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 395–407.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Byrne, R. M. J. (2007). Precis of the rational imagination: How people create alternatives to reality. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 439–480.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Callander, G., Brown, G. P., Tata, P., & Regan, L. (2007). Counterfactual thinking and psychological distress following recurrent miscarriage. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 25, 51–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Chesney, M. A., Neilands, T. B., Chambers, D. B., Taylor, J. M., & Folkman, S. (2006). A validity and reliability study of the coping self-efficacy scale. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 421–437.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  11. Davies, M. I., & Clark, D. M. (1998). Thought suppression produces a rebound effect with analogue post-traumatic intrusions. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 36, 571–582.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Davis, C. G., & Lehman, D. R. (1995). Counterfactual thinking and coping with traumatic life events. In N. J. Roese & J. M. Olson (Eds.), What might have been: The social psychology of counterfactual thinking (pp. 199–231). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  13. Davis, C. G., Lehman, D. R., Silver, R. C., Wortman, C. B., & Ellard, J. H. (1996). Self-blame following a traumatic event: The role of perceived avoidability. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 557–567.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Davis, C. G., Lehman, D. R., Wortman, C. B., Cohen Silver, R., & Thompson, S. C. (1995). The undoing of traumatic life events. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 109–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dyczewski, E. A., & Markman, K. D. (2012). General attainability beliefs moderate the motivational effects of counterfactual thinking. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 1217–1220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Eaton, W. W., Smith, C., Ybarra, M., Muntaner, C., & Tien, A. (2004). Center for epidemiologic studies depression scale: Review and revision (CESD and CESD-R). In M. E. Maruish (Ed.), The use of psychological testing for treatment planning and outcomes assessment (3rd edn., Vol. 3, pp. 363–377). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  17. Epstude, K., & Jonas, K. J. (2015). Regret and counterfactual thinking in the face of inevitability: The case of HIV-positive men. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6, 157–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Epstude, K., & Roese, N. J. (2007). Beyond rationality: Counterfactual thinking and behavior regulation [Peer commentary on journal article “Precis of the rational imagination: How people create alternatives to reality” by R. M. J. Byrne]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 457–458.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Epstude, K., & Roese, N. J. (2008). The functional theory of counterfactual thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12, 168–192.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  20. Gollwitzer, P. M., & Kirchhof, O. (1998). The willful pursuit of identity. In J. Heckhausen & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), Motivation and self-regulation across the life span (pp. 389–423). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gross, J. J. (1998). Antecedent- and response-focused emotion regulation: Divergent consequences for experience, expression, and physiology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 224–237.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Gross, J. J., & John, O. P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: Implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 348–362.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Janoff-Bulman, R. (1979). Characterological versus behavioral self-blame: Inquiries into depression and rape. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1798–1809.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Jokisaari, M. (2004). Regrets and subjective well-being: A life course approach. Journal of Adult Development, 11, 281–288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kahneman, D., & Miller, D. T. (1986). Norm theory: Comparing reality to its alternatives. Psychological Review, 93, 136–153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1982). The simulation heuristic. In D. Kahneman, P. Slovic & A. Tversky (Eds.), Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases (pp. 201–208). New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kappes, A., & Oettingen, G. (2014). The emergence of goal pursuit: Mental contrasting connects future and reality. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 54, 25–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kappes, A., Singmann, H., & Oettingen, G. (2012). Mental contrasting instigates goal pursuit by linking obstacles of reality with instrumental behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 811–818.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kappes, A., Wendt, M., Reinelt, T., & Oettingen, G. (2013). Mental contrasting changes the meaning of reality. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 797–810.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2006). Narrating the self in the past and the future: Implications for maturity. Research in Human Development, 3, 121–138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. King, L. A., & Raspin, C. (2004). Lost and found possible selves, subjective well-being, and ego development in divorced women. Journal of Personality, 72, 603–632.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. King, L. A., & Smith, N. G. (2004). Gay and straight possible selves: Goals, identity, subjective well-being, and personality development. Journal of Personality, 72, 967–994.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Koole, S. L. (2009). The psychology of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Cognition and Emotion, 23, 4–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Krott, N. R., & Oettingen, G. (2017). How to turn counterfactual fantasies into energy and effort: Mental contrasting of the positive past with the impeding reality. Poster presented at the 2nd Biennial International Convention of Psychological Science, Vienna, Austria.Google Scholar
  35. Landman, J., Vandewater, E. A., Stewart, A. J., & Malley, J. E. (1995). Missed opportunities: Psychological ramifications of counterfactual thought in midlife women. Journal of Adult Development, 2, 87–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  37. Lecci, L., Okun, M. A., & Karoly, P. (1994). Life regrets and current goals as predictors of psychological adjustment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 731–741.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Mandel, D. R. (2003). Counterfactuals, emotions, and context. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 139–159.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 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.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Markman, K. D., Karadogan, F., Lindberg, M. J., & Zell, E. (2009). Counterfactual thinking: Function and dysfunction. In K. D. Markman, W. M. P. Klein & J. A. Suhr (Eds.), Handbook of imagination and mental simulation (Vol. 1, pp. 175–193).Google Scholar
  41. Markman, K. D., & McMullen, M. N. (2003). A reflection and evaluation model of comparative thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7, 244–267.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Markman, K. D., & McMullen, M. N. (2005). Reflective and evaluative modes of mental simulation. In D. R. Mandel, D. J. Hilton & P. Catellani (Eds.), The psychology of counterfactual thinking (pp. 77–93). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  43. Markman, K. D., & McMullen, M. N. (2007). Counterfactuals need not be comparative: The case of “as if” [Peer commentary on journal article “Precis of the rational imagination: How people create alternatives to reality” by R. M. J. Byrne]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 461–462.Google Scholar
  44. Mayer, J. D., & Gaschke, Y. N. (1988). The experience and meta-experience of mood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 102–111.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. McCloy, R., & Byrne, R. M. J. (2002). Semifactual “even if” thinking. Thinking and Reasoning, 8, 41–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. McMullen, M. N. (1997). Affective contrast and assimilation in counterfactual thinking. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 33, 77–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. McMullen, M. N., & Markman, K. D. (2002). Affective impact of close counterfactuals: Implications of possible futures for possible pasts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 64–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Miller, G. E., & Wrosch, C. (2007). You’ve gotta know when to fold’em: Goal disengagement and systemic inflammation in adolescence. Psychological Science, 18, 773–777.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Murphy, J. G. (1982). Forgiveness and resentment. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 1, 503–516.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Nasco, S. A., & Marsh, K. L. (1999). Gaining control through counterfactual thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 557–569.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Morrow, J. (1993). Effects of rumination and distraction on naturally occurring depressed mood. Cognition and Emotion, 7, 561–570.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Ochsner, K. N., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Cognitive emotion regulation: Insights from social cognitive and affective neuroscience. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 153–158.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  53. Oettingen, G. (1999). Free fantasies about the future and the emergence of developmental goals. In J. Brandtstädter & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Action and self-development: Theory and research through the life span (pp. 315–342). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Google Scholar
  54. Oettingen, G. (2012). Future thought and behaviour change. European Review of Social Psychology, 23, 1–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Oettingen, G. (2014). Rethinking positive thinking: Inside the new science of motivation. New York: Penguin Random House.Google Scholar
  56. Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2002). The motivating function of thinking about the future: Expectations versus fantasies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1198–1212.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  57. Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., & Portnow, S. (2016). Pleasure now, pain later: Positive fantasies about the future predict symptoms of depression. Psychological Science, 27, 345–353.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., Sevincer, A. T., Stephens, E. J., Pak, H., & Hagenah, M. (2009). Mental contrasting and goal commitment: The mediating role of energization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 608–622.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  59. Oettingen, G., Pak, H., & Schnetter, K. (2001). Self-regulation of goal setting: Turning free fantasies about the future into binding goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 736–753.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  60. Roemer, L., & Borkovec, T. D. (1994). Effects of suppressing thoughts about emotional material. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103, 467–474.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  61. Roese, N. J. (1994). The functional basis of counterfactual thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 805–818.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Roese, N. J. (1997). Counterfactual thinking. Psychological Bulletin, 121, 133–148.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. Roese, N. J., & Hur, T. (1997). Affective determinants of counterfactual thinking. Social Cognition, 15, 274–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Roese, N. J., & Morrison, M. (2009). The psychology of counterfactual thinking. Historical Social Research, 2, 16–26.Google Scholar
  65. Roese, N. J., & Summerville, A. (2005). What we regret most…and why. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1273–1285.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  66. Roese, N. J., Summerville, A., & Fessel, F. (2007). Regret and behavior: Comment on Zeelenberg and Pieters. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 17, 25.28.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  67. Rusting, C. L., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1998). Regulation responses to anger: Effects of rumination and distraction on angry mood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 790–803.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  68. Schmeichel, B. J., Volokhov, R. N., & Demaree, H. A. (2008). Working memory capacity and the self-regulation of emotional expression and experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1526–1540.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  69. Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1178–1197.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  70. Sevincer, A. T., Busatta, P. D., & Oettingen, G. (2014). Mental contrasting and transfer of energization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 139–152.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  71. Sherman, S. J., & McConnell, A. R. (1995). Dysfunctional implications of counterfactual thinking: When alternatives to reality fail us. In N. J. Roese & J. M. Olson (Eds.), What might have been: The social psychology of counterfactual thinking (pp. 199–231). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  72. Smallman, R., & Roese, N. J. (2009). Counterfactual thinking facilitates behavioral intentions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 845–852.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  73. Summerville, A., & Roese, N. J. (2008). Dare to compare: Fact-based versus simulation-based comparison in daily life. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 664–671.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  74. Van Dillen, L. F., Heslenfeld, D., & Koole, S. L. (2008). Tuning down the emotional brain: An fMRI study of the effects of cognitive load non the processing of affective images. NeuroImage, 45, 1212–1219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Van Dillen, L. F., & Koole, S. L. (2007). Clearing the mind: A working memory model of distraction from negative emotion. Emotion, 7, 715–723.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  76. Watkins, P. C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., & Kolts, R. L. (2003). Gratitude and happiness: Development of a measure of gratitude, and relationship with subjective well-being. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 31, 431–452.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 5–13.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  78. Weisz, J. R., McCabe, M. A., & Dennig, M. D. (1994). Primary and secondary control among children undergoing medical procedures: Adjustment as a function of coping style. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 324–332.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  79. Wenzlaff, R. M., & Wegner, D. M. (2000). Thought suppression. In S. T. Fiske (Ed.), Annual review of psychology (Vol. 51, pp. 59–91). Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews.Google Scholar
  80. Wicklund, R. A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (1982). Symbolic self-completion. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  81. Wrosch, C., Miller, G. E., Scheier, M. F., & Brun de Pontet, S. (2007). Giving up on unattainable goals: Benefits for health? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 251–265.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  82. Wrosch, C., Scheier, M. F., Carver, C. S., & Schulz, R. (2003). The importance of goal disengagement in adaptive self-regulation: When giving up is beneficial. Self and Identity, 2, 1–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Wrosch, C., Scheier, M. F., Miller, G. E., Schulz, R., & Carver, C. S. (2003). Adaptive self-regulation of unattainable goals: Goal disengagement, goal reengagement, and subjective well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 1494–1508.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  84. Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2007). A theory of regret regulation 1.0. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 17, 3–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Zeelenberg, M., van Dijk, W. W., & Manstead, A. S. R. (1998). The experience of regret and disappointment. Cognition and Emotion, 12, 221–230.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of PsychologyUniversity of HamburgHamburgGermany
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations