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Upward counterfactual thinking and state depression: investigating a causal relationship

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Abstract

Upward counterfactual thinking involves imagining favourable situations that could have changed the outcome of a negative event. Although it has been reliably positively associated with depression, a causal relationship has not yet been investigated. This study addressed this gap in the literature by examining whether upward counterfactual thinking causally increases state depression. The online experimental study was conducted on 469 Philippine residents (Mage = 29.45; SD = 10.35; Range 18–72). As predicted, individuals who were induced to engage in an upward counterfactual thinking writing activity regarding a previous negative experience related to an unattained goal reported higher state depression relative to individuals who completed a neutral writing task. Consistent with the sequential negative cognitions-to-affect framework articulated by theories of depression, regret mediated the link between upward counterfactual thinking and depression. Contrary to expectation, induced upward counterfactual thinking increased state depression when perceived personal control over the negative experience was low or moderate but not when high. Future opportunity to change the negative experience was independently associated with decreased state depression but did not interact with upward counterfactual thinking to influence responses. Implications of these findings are discussed.

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Data availability

The links of the datafiles associated with this study are provided below:

Manipulation Check Upward Counterfactual Thinking-Depression Datafile (n = 68): https://osf.io/dc58w.

Main Sample Upward Counterfactual Thinking-Depression Datafile (n = 469): https://osf.io/d2ma6.

Notes

  1. We thank a mental health nurse (who would like to remain anonymous) for assisting with the coding of upward counterfactual thinking referents.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the anonymous reviewers for their suggestions on improving the manuscript. We also thank a mental health nurse (who would like to remain anonymous) for assisting with the coding of upward counterfactual thinking referents, and Roberto T. Añonuevo and Vic Avila for assisting with the Filipino language translations of the procedures and measures of the study.

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Correspondence to Anne Gene Broomhall.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee (Human Research Ethics Committee of the University of New England Australia, Approval No. HE 19–026) and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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

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On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

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The study presented here is a revised chapter of the PhD thesis of the first author and is not under consideration by any other journal.

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Broomhall, A.G., Phillips, W.J. Upward counterfactual thinking and state depression: investigating a causal relationship. Curr Psychol 43, 486–501 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-023-04280-2

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