‘Shoulda, woulda, coulda…’

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably experienced a shoulda-woulda-coulda moment; a time when we lament our missteps, saying that we should have invested in a certain stock, should have become a doctor instead of a lawyer and so on.

Psychologists refer to this process, in which we evaluate how we would do things differently, as “counterfactual thinking” and while it can have a positive spin, more often than not it is a psychological mechanism that causes us to harbor feelings of disappointment and regret.

In order to study counterfactual thinking, researchers are fond of having participants read stories in which the main character makes decisions that will ultimately doom him or her to failure and then ask these same participants how they would have done things differently.

But this method may not provide a complete picture of this mental process. New research published in the June issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, shows that our counterfactual thinking may be markedly different when we are actually experiencing failure rather than reading about someone else’s.

In a series of experiments, Vittorio Girotto of the University IUAV of Venice, Italy and his colleagues attempted to demonstrate and explain the differences in counterfactual thinking between actors (those actually experiencing the problem) and readers (those who merely read about the problem).

The experiments went like this: Subjects were first divided into ‘actor’ and ‘reader’ groups. The actors were then asked to participate in a game in which they could win a reward by solving a math problem. They were then asked to choose one of two sealed envelopes: One was said to contain a difficult problem, and one supposedly contained an easy problem. In reality, both envelopes contained a problem that was nearly impossible to solve in the allotted time. Once the actors inevitably failed, they were asked to write at least one way in which things would have been better for them.

In the reader condition, subjects read a story with a protagonist who faced the same choice and ended with the same negative outcome as the subjects did in the actor condition. Like the actors, readers were required to write at least one way in which things would have been better for the protagonist.

As predicted by the researchers, readers and actors exhibited markedly different tendencies in their counterfactual thinking. In particular, readers tended to undo the protagonist’s choice to tackle the problem at hand (e.g., “If she had picked the other envelope …”). Actors, on the other hand, altered the features of the problem solving process (e.g., “If the use of calculator was admitted …”).

These results run counter to previous theories of counterfactual thinking. It was assumed that people who read a story construct the same counterfactuals as people who experienced the events described in the story. Moreover, it was believed that actors tend to avoid self-blame at all costs when thinking of alternatives. Instead, the actor-reader differences emerged even in conditions in which actors’ decisions were unblameworthy. As the researchers write, “Actors and readers produce different counterfactuals because they rely on different information, not because they have different motivations.”


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