Cognitive Processes in Counterfactual Thinking

Authored by: Ruth M. J. Byrne , Vittorio Girotto

Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation

Print publication date:  December  2008
Online publication date:  September  2012

Print ISBN: 9781841698878
eBook ISBN: 9780203809846
Adobe ISBN: 9781136678103


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One of the extraordinary achievements of human cognition is that people are able to consider and reason about facts, as they remember or understand them, and they are also able to consider and reason about hypothetical possibilities. The ability to think hypothetically is fundamental to reasoning and decision making. People often think about hypothetical alternative possibilities when they imagine the future, such as, “If I arrange a reasonable mortgage, I could buy a small apartment in the center of the city.” These thoughts about future alternatives may assist people in planning and predicting. But, people also tend to think about hypothetical alternative possibilities when they remember the past, such as, “If I had bought property before prices increased, I would have been able to afford a larger house.” These counterfactual alternatives may help them to work out the causes of outcomes (e.g., Roese & Olson, 1995). Thinking about counterfactual alternatives may also help people to prepare for the future by informing them about how to prevent bad outcomes (McMullen & Markman, 2002; Roese, 1997; in this volume, see also Markman, Karadogan, Lindberg, & Zell, Chapter 12).

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