Counterfactual reasoning and imagination

Authored by: Ruth M. J. Byrne

The Routledge International Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning

Print publication date:  November  2017
Online publication date:  November  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138849303
eBook ISBN: 9781315725697
Adobe ISBN:


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Suppose you usually take your vacation in the same place most years, but this year for a change you go somewhere new. It turns out badly, the weather is awful, the accommodation is unpleasant, the food is expensive, and you have a miserable time. You might find it tempting to think, ‘If only I’d gone to my usual favorite spot…’. When things go wrong, people tend to imagine how they could have turned out differently. They create a counterfactual alternative to reality in their ‘if only…’ thoughts by mentally ‘undoing’ some of the things that they believe contributed to the outcome. For example, most people focus on something exceptional – such as the choice of a new vacation location – and mentally change it back to normal (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982a). The discovery of this ‘exceptionality effect’ in counterfactual thinking over 30 years ago marked the start of an enduring and extensive examination of how people create counterfactual alternatives to reality.

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