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.
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In Studies 2–6, we assessed the same control variables as in Study 1, including an additional measure of participants’ levels of depression (revised Center for Epidemiologic Depression Scale, CESD-R; Eaton et al. 2004) in order to ensure that our experimental effects would also hold beyond participants’ levels of depressive symptoms.
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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.
This study was funded by German Research Foundation Grant awarded to Gabriele Oettingen (Grant number Oe-237/13-1).
Conflict of interest
Nora Rebekka Krott and Gabriele Oettingen declares that they have no conflict of interest.
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 was obtained from all individual participants included in the studies.
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Krott, N.R., Oettingen, G. Mental contrasting of counterfactual fantasies attenuates disappointment, regret, and resentment. Motiv Emot 42, 17–36 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-017-9644-4
- Mental contrasting
- Counterfactual thinking
- Counterfactual emotions
- Emotion regulation