Judgment and Decision
Making, vol. 1, no. 2, November 2006, pp. 98-107.
Counterfactual thinking and regulatory fit
Keith D. Markman1
Matthew N. McMullen
Montana State University-Billings,
Ronald A. Elizaga and Nobuko Mizoguchi
According to regulatory fit theory (Higgins, 2000), when people make
decisions with strategies that sustain their regulatory focus
orientation, they ``feel right'' about what they are doing, and this
``feeling-right'' experience then transfers to subsequent choices,
decisions, and evaluations. The present research was designed to link
the concept of regulatory fit to functional accounts of counterfactual
thinking. In the present study, participants generated counterfactuals
about their anagram performance, after which persistence on a second
set of anagrams was measured. Under promotion framing (i.e., find 90%
or more of all the possible words) upward counterfactual thinking in
general elicited larger increases in persistence than did downward
counterfactual thinking in general, but under prevention framing (i.e.,
avoid failing to find 90% or more of all the possible words) upward
evaluation (comparing reality to a better reality) elicited larger
increases in persistence than did upward reflection (focusing on a
better reality), whereas downward reflection (focusing on a worse
reality) elicited larger increases in persistence than did downward
evaluation (comparing reality to a worse reality). In all, the present
findings suggest that the generation of counterfactuals enhances the
likelihood that individuals will engage in courses of action that fit
with their regulatory focus orientation.
Keywords: Counterfactual, regulatory fit, assimilation, contrast,
Individuals are commonly beset by thoughts of what would, might, or
could have been if events had taken a different turn. This phenomenon -
termed "counterfactual thinking" - has generated a great deal of
interest over the past 25 years (for reviews, see Miller, Turnbull, &
McFarland, 1990; Roese, 1997; Mandel, Hilton, & Catellani, 2005). In
addition to research implicating counterfactuals in judgments of
causality, blame, suspicion, and victim compensation (e.g., Kahneman &
Miller, 1986; Miller & Gunasegaram, 1990; Wells & Gavanski, 1989),
work has focused on how counterfactual thinking influences emotions.
For instance, research suggested that people will have a stronger
emotional reaction to an outcome to the extent that counterfactual
alternatives are highly salient (Gleicher et al., 1990; Johnson, 1986;
Kahneman & Miller, 1986). Thus, a traveler who misses a plane flight
by several minutes is expected to experience more negative affect than
is a traveler who misses the same flight by two hours (Kahneman &
Extending these early findings, researchers began to stress a
distinction between upward and downward counterfactuals (Markman,
et al., 1993; McMullen, Markman, &
Gavanski, 1995; Roese, 1994; Sanna, 1996). Upward counterfactuals
compare reality to a more desirable alternative world (e.g., "If
only I had pumped my brakes, I could have avoided the
accident"), whereas downward counterfactuals compare reality to
a less desirable alternative world (e.g., "If I hadn't been
wearing my seat belt, I could have been killed"). Through an
affective contrast mechanism (Schwarz & Bless, 1992; Sherif &
Hovland, 1961), upward counterfactuals can elicit negative affect
whereas downward counterfactuals can elicit positive affect
(Markman et al., 1993; Markman, et al., 1995; Medvec, Madey, &
Gilovich, 1995; Roese, 1994; Sanna, 1996).
In turn, researchers also attempted to describe the possible
functions that upward and downward counterfactual thoughts might
serve. One identified function is the contrast-based affective
response to downward counterfactuals (e.g., McMullen, 1997;
Roese, 1997; Taylor & Schneider, 1989) - a given outcome will
be judged more favorably to the extent that a less desirable
alternative is salient. By highlighting how the situation or
outcome could easily have been worse, downward counterfactuals
can enhance coping and well being. On the other hand, upward
counterfactuals are posited to serve a preparative function.
Thus, although upward counterfactuals may devalue the actual
outcome and make people feel worse (e.g., Markman & McMullen,
2003; Mellers, Schwartz, Ho, & Ritov, 1997; Roese, 1994),
simulating routes to better realities may help individuals
improve upon their outcomes in the future (Johnson & Sherman,
1990; Karniol & Ross, 1996; Taylor & Schneider, 1989).
Providing initial empirical support for the motivational functions of
counterfactual thinking, Markman, Gavanski, Sherman, and McMullen
(1993) had participants play blackjack against a computer-simulated
opponent and led them to believe that they would either be playing no
additional hands of blackjack or three additional hands of blackjack.
Participants who expected to play again demonstrated a greater tendency
to generate upward counterfactuals relative to those who did not expect
to play again. According to Markman et al., participants who expected
to play again generated upward counterfactuals because they needed
preparative information to help them perform better. On the other hand,
participants who did not expect to play again needed no such
information and, instead, wanted only to feel good about their current
performance. Thus, the downward counterfactuals they generated served
the affective function. Roese (1994) followed up this work by directly
manipulating upward and downward counterfactual generation in order to
examine their subsequent effects on both motivation and behavior.
Participants induced to generate upward counterfactuals performed
better on an anagram task than did those who generated downward
counterfactuals (Morris & Moore, 2000; Nasco & Marsh, 1999; Parks,
Sanna, & Posey, 2003).
Notably, all of the studies reviewed thus far have focused exclusively
on the emotional and motivational consequences of contrastive
counterfactual generation whereby judgments are displaced
away from the counterfactual reference point. However, recent
theorizing and research have suggested that assimilative
counterfactual generation whereby judgments are pulled toward
the counterfactual reference point are also possible (e.g., Landman &
Petty, 2000; Markman, Elizaga, Ratcliff, & McMullen, in press; Markman
& McMullen, 2003, 2005; Markman, Ratcliff, Mizoguchi, McMullen, &
Elizaga, in press; Markman & Tetlock, 2000; McMullen, 1997; McMullen
& Markman, 2000, 2002; Wayment, 2004).
In order to account for how assimilation and contrast effects can both
arise following the generation of counterfactuals, Markman and McMullen
(2003; see also Markman & McMullen, 2005; Markman et al., in press)
developed the Reflection and Evaluation Model (REM) of comparative
thinking. At the heart of the model is the assertion that two
psychologically distinct modes of mental simulation operate during
comparative thinking. The first mode is reflection, an
experiential ("as if") mode of thinking whereby one imagines that
information about the comparison reference point is true of, or is part
of, oneself or one's present standing, and the second mode is
evaluation, whereby the outcome of a mental simulation run is
used as a reference point against which to evaluate oneself or one's
Figure 1 depicts the interaction between simulation direction and
simulation mode. To illustrate, consider the student who receives a B
on an exam but realizes that an A was easily attainable with some
additional studying. In the case of upward evaluation, the student
switches attention between the outcome (a grade of B) and the
counterfactual reference point (a grade of A). According to the REM,
such attentional switching ("I got a B...I could have gotten an A
but instead I got a B") involves comparing the outcome to the
counterfactual reference point and thereby instigates evaluative
processing (see also Oettingen, Pak, & Schnetter, 2001). In the case
of upward reflection, however, the student's attention is focused
mainly on the counterfactual reference point itself. Focusing on the
counterfactual instigates reflective processing whereby the student
considers the implications of the counterfactual and temporarily
experiences the counterfactual as if it were real ("What if I had
actually gotten an A?"). In a sense, the student is "transported"
into the counterfactual world (Green & Brock, 2000). Likewise,
consider the case of a driver who pulls away from the curb without
carefully checking rear and side-view mirrors, and subsequently slams
on the brakes as a large truck whizzes by. In the case of downward
evaluation, the driver switches attention between the counterfactual
reference point (being hit by the truck) and the outcome (not being hit
by the truck), thereby instigating evaluative processing ("I was
fortunate to not have been hit by that truck"). In the case of
downward reflection, however, the driver's attention is mainly focused
on the counterfactual itself, thereby instigating reflective processing
("I nearly got hit by that truck").
Figure 1: The interaction between simulation direction and mode.
The evidence for assimilative responses to counterfactuals that has
accumulated so far has mostly focused on affective reactions - upward
and downward counterfactuals can engender both positive and
negative affect (e.g., McMullen, 1997). The present paper, however,
examines the motivational consequences of upward and downward
assimilative and contrastive counterfactuals. To do so, we consider the
interaction between simulation direction (upward versus
downward) and simulation mode (reflective versus evaluative).
According to the REM, upward evaluation should be motivationally
superior to upward reflection because the former is more likely to
specify implementation strategies that allow one to evaluate the
observed consequences of one's actions and implement novel strategies
(see also Gollwitzer, Heckhausen, & Stellar, 1990; Segura & Morris,
2005). Upward reflection, on the other hand, functions very much like a
positive fantasy that can engender anticipatory consumption of
motivation. According to Oettingen (1996), in a positive fantasy,
"...a person may `experience' the future event ahead of time and
may color the future experience more brightly and joyfully than reality
would ever permit. Therefore the need to act is not felt, and the
thorny path leading to implementing the fantasy may be easily
overlooked" (pp. 238-239).
The divergence between the REM and other functional approaches is
perhaps even more evident when downward counterfactuals are
considered.Previous models of counterfactual
thinking and motivation (e.g., Markman et al., 1993; Roese, 1994,
1997), and more recent and general models of mental simulation (e.g.,
Oettingen, 1996; Oettingen et al., 2001; Sanna, Stocker, & Clarke,
2003) have contended that goal-based mental simulations necessarily
involve contrasts with reality. The REM, on the other hand, predicts
that whereas downward reflection should enhance motivation in
achievement domains because it raises an individual's awareness of the
possibility that a negative goal-state could have been attained (see
also Wayment, 2004), downward evaluation should engender complacency
because it suggests that a negative goal-state has been successfully
avoided. In an initial test of these ideas, McMullen and Markman (2000,
Study 3) found that students reported less motivation in a class
following the generation of contrastive downward counterfactuals about
their first exam score, but reported more motivation following the
generation of assimilative downward counterfactuals. Importantly,
however, whereas McMullen and Markman (2000) measured only
intentions to perform better in the future, the present
research obtained behavioral measures of persistence and performance
following counterfactual generation. Moreover, whereas McMullen and
Markman (2000) focused only on downward counterfactuals, the present
research focused on the motivational consequences of both downward
and upward counterfactuals.
| || Mode|
| ||Reflection ||Evaluation|
Direction ||Upward ||"I almost got an A." ||"I got a B. ... I failed to get an A."|
||Downward ||"I nearly got hit by that truck." ||"I was fortunate to not have been hit by that truck."|
1.1 Regulatory focus and fit theory
The present work attempts to build on the REM account by examining the
consequences of counterfactual generation when individuals are focused
on either promotion or prevention goals (e.g., Higgins, 1998, 2000; see
also Hur, 2000; Pennington & Roese, 2002; Roese, Hur, & Pennington,
1999). According to regulatory focus theory (Higgins, 1998),
promotion-oriented individuals are focused on growth, advancement, and
accomplishment and thus tend to pursue strategies aimed at approaching
desirable outcomes. On the other hand, prevention-oriented individuals
are focused on protection, safety, and responsibility and thus tend to
pursue strategies aimed at avoiding undesirable outcomes. Within the
context of counterfactual thinking, a promotion focus should encourage
individuals to devise strategies (e.g., putting more effort into school
work) designed to achieve outcomes that are more favorable than the
actual outcome, whereas a prevention focus should encourage the
development of strategies (e.g., checking all rear-view and side
mirrors before pulling out of a parking space) that attempt to avoid
outcomes that are less favorable than the actual outcome.
Recent research examining value and decision making has shown that the
choice strategy or the manner in which an object is chosen can affect
the object's perceived value (e.g., Avnet & Higgins, 2003; Camacho,
Higgins, & Luger, 2003; Higgins, Idson, Freitas, Spiegel, & Molden,
2003), and this effect on value has been termed the regulatory
fit effect (e.g., Higgins, 2000, 2005). According to regulatory fit
theory, when people engage in decisions or choices with strategies that
sustain their orientation, they "feel right" about what they are
doing, and this "feeling-right" experience then transfers to
subsequent choices, decisions, and evaluations. For example, Avnet and
Higgins (2003) found that people offered more of their own money to buy
the same chosen book light when the choice strategy they used fit their
regulatory orientation than when it did not fit, and Higgins et al.
(2003) found that people assigned a price up to 40% higher for the
same chosen coffee mug when their choice strategy fit their regulatory
orientation than when it did not fit.
Regulatory fit theory also predicts that motivational strength will be
enhanced when the manner in which people work toward a goal sustains
(rather than disrupts) their regulatory orientation, and that this
enhanced motivational strength should in turn improve efforts at goal
attainment. Recently, Spiegel, Grant-Pillow, and Higgins (2004) applied
this notion to the domain of mental simulation. These researchers
hypothesized that people with a promotion focus who eagerly simulate
and develop approach-oriented plans should perform better at a task
than people with a promotion focus who vigilantly simulate and develop
avoidance-oriented plans, whereas people with a prevention focus who
vigilantly simulate and develop avoidance-oriented plans should perform
better at a task than people with a prevention focus who eagerly
simulate and develop approach-oriented plans. In support, Spiegel et
al. (2004, Experiment 1) found that participants with regulatory fit
between their predominant regulatory focus and the type of plans they
mentally simulated were 50% more likely to turn in a report on time
than participants without regulatory fit.
In a similar vein, we suggest that counterfactuals will enhance
motivational strength to the extent that there is regulatory fit
between the counterfactual and the predominant regulatory focus. The
initial formulation of the REM (Markman & McMullen, 2003) made the
general prediction that upward counterfactuals should be more
associated with promotion concerns, whereas downward counterfactuals
(and downward reflection in particular) should be more associated with
prevention concerns. In a refinement of this initial prediction,
however, we hypothesize that upward evaluation (i.e., the explicit
comparison of reality to an imagined better reality) may be associated
with both a promotion and a prevention focus. Roese (1997) has
characterized upward counterfactual thoughts as being "...part of
a virtual, rather than an actual, process of avoidance
behavior..." (p. 135), and Mandel and his colleagues (e.g.,
Mandel, 2003; Mandel & Lehman, 1996) have provided evidence that
upward counterfactuals are applied most commonly toward how an outcome
could have been avoided and prevented. More generally, then, upward
counterfactual thinking may focus one on how an actual negative outcome
can be avoided in the future, but can also suggest means by which one
can approach a relatively more favorable future outcome.
In the present paper, we offer new and more specific predictions
regarding the moderating role of promotion versus prevention concerns
on the motivational consequences of counterfactual thinking. First, we
hypothesize that whereas upward reflection provides a good regulatory
fit with promotion focus because it gives rise to the eager simulation
and development of approach-oriented plans (Spiegel et al., 2004),
upward evaluation should provide a good regulatory fit with both
promotion and prevention foci because it focuses the individual on both
the approach-related plans associated with the attainment of a desired
end-state (i.e., the counterfactual outcome) and the
avoidance-related plans associated with the prevention of an undesired
end-state (i.e., the actual outcome). Thus, upward evaluation and
upward reflection should both be motivating in a promotion context,
whereas upward evaluation should be more motivating than upward
reflection in a prevention context. Secondly, we hypothesize that
downward reflection should provide a good regulatory fit with
prevention focus because it focuses the individual on the vigilant
simulation and development of avoidance-related plans, whereas downward
evaluation should not be motivating in any context, as it merely
focuses the individual on feeling better about the present state of
affairs. Thus, whereas neither downward reflection nor downward
evaluation should be motivating in a promotion context, downward
reflection should be more motivating than downward evaluation in a
prevention context. Overall, then, in a promotion context upward
counterfactuals should be motivating and downward counterfactuals
should not, whereas in a prevention context, upward evaluation and
downward reflection should be motivating and upward reflection and
downward evaluation should not.
1.2 Study Overview
Participants completed an initial set of anagrams, received performance
feedback, and were then instructed to generate either upward or
downward counterfactuals about their performance. Subsequently,
participants were instructed to either reflect upon the counterfactual
they generated or evaluate their performance by comparing it to the
counterfactual they generated. Participants then completed a second set
of anagrams. Importantly, however, the incentive for completing the
second set of anagrams was framed either in terms of gaining or not
gaining an extra dollar for the promotion focus (from a starting point
of $4), or in terms of losing or not losing a dollar for the
prevention focus (from a starting point of $5). Framing the same
objective incentive (i.e., $5 for success and $4 for failure) in
terms of the possibility of either gaining extra money or not, or the
possibility of losing money or not, allowed us to examine the
interactive effects of simulation direction, simulation mode, and
regulatory focus context on motivation independent of differences in
the actual incentive (Shah, Higgins, & Friedman, 1998).
Overall, we predicted that regulatory focus would interact with
simulation direction and mode in the following way:
1. Under promotion framing, upward counterfactual thinking will elicit a
larger increase in persistence than will downward counterfactual
2. Under prevention framing, upward evaluation will elicit a larger
increase in persistence than will upward reflection, whereas downward
reflection will elicit a larger increase in persistence than will
2.1 Participants and Design
One hundred sixty-six male and female introductory psychology students
at Ohio University participated in exchange for course credit. The data
from 14 participants in the downward counterfactual condition were
eliminated because they responded incorrectly to the counterfactual
solicitation (i.e., they generated upward counterfactuals in addition
to, or instead of, downward counterfactuals). The remaining 152
participants were randomly assigned to the conditions of a 2
(Direction: upward vs. downward) X 2 (Mode:
reflective vs. evaluative) X 2 (Regulatory Focus Framing:
promotion vs. prevention) between-subjects design. Participants were
run on separate IBM computers in groups no larger than four.
Participants were seated at computers running MediaLab software
(Jarvis, 2004) and informed that the purpose of the experiment was to
understand "puzzle-solving." After signing consent forms,
participants clicked on a computer mouse to begin, and the following
instructions appeared on the screen:
In the experiment you will be solving anagrams. This task
involves unscrambling a series of letters to FORM AS MANY WORDS
AS POSSIBLE using ALL OF THE LETTERS in the series. For example,
the letters "ALSET" can be unscrambled to form the words
"TALES", "STALE", and "STEAL".
You will be given two sets of 10 anagrams to solve. Your performance on
the second set of anagrams will determine how much MONEY you will earn
for participating in the experiment. The first set of 10 anagrams will
serve as practice for the second set. Following completion of the first
set, you will receive FEEDBACK concerning your PERFORMANCE on this
Each anagram may have no solution, one solution, or multiple solutions.
You have as much time as you require for finding all of the solutions
that you can.
Participants then began solving the practice set of anagrams. Each
anagram appeared in the center of the screen, and participants were
asked to type in their solutions in the field that appeared below it.
Participants were given the options of both skipping to the next
anagram in the set and returning to previous anagrams in the set. Three
of the ten anagrams that appeared in the practice set were taken from
practice items developed by Shah et al. (1998), and the others were
developed by the present authors. The ten anagrams used in the
experimental set were identical to the ten anagrams employed by Shah et
al. (1998) in their experimental set. Each anagram in both the practice
and experimental sets had between two and four possible solutions.
Participants worked at their own pace and were given as much time as
they wished to complete the set of anagrams. The computer kept track of
how long participants spent generating solutions to each anagram.
Following completion of the first set, all participants received
accurate information regarding their performance, but
inaccurate information concerning the total number of possible
solutions by employing the following feedback format: "Out of `2X'
possible solutions, you correctly found `X' solutions." Thus, for
example, a participant who found 12 correct solutions across the entire
practice set of anagrams was told that, "Out of 24 possible solutions,
you correctly found 12 solutions." The purpose of providing "2X"
feedback was to leave each participant with equivalent "room" to
generate either upward or downward counterfactuals (cf. Markman et al.,
Next, participants were instructed to, "...think about how
something different could have happened rather than what actually
happened." Those assigned to the upward counterfactual condition were
then told, "Specifically, think about how your performance on the
anagrams might have turned out BETTER than it actually did," whereas
those assigned to the downward counterfactual condition were told to
"...think about how your performance on the anagrams might have
turned out WORSE than it actually did." Participants then provided
their counterfactual thoughts in writing.
Simulation mode was then manipulated. The evaluative mode instructions
directed participants to "Close your eyes and think about your ACTUAL
performance on the anagrams COMPARED to how you MIGHT have performed
BETTER (WORSE). Take a minute and VIVIDLY EVALUATE your performance in
comparison to how you might have performed better (worse)," whereas
the reflective mode instructions directed participants to "Close your
eyes and VIVIDLY imagine what might have been. Spend about a minute
VIVIDLY IMAGINING how your performance on the anagrams might have been
BETTER (WORSE) - the imagined performance you have been thinking
about." Participants were then asked to describe these thoughts in
At this point, participants were reminded that they had an opportunity
to win money for their performance on the second set of anagrams.
Participants assigned to the promotion-framing condition were told that
their goal was to find 90% or more of all the possible words, and that
although they were assured of receiving $4 for participating in the
experiment, it was possible for them to earn an extra dollar. They
would earn the extra dollar if they found 90% or more of all the
possible words, but they would not receive the extra dollar if they
failed to find 90% or more of all the possible words.
Participants assigned to the prevention-framing condition were told that
their goal was to not miss more than 10% of all the possible words,
and that although the experimenter was planning to pay them $5 for
participating in the experiment, it was possible for them to lose a
dollar. They would not lose a dollar if they missed 10% or less of all
the possible words, but they would lose a dollar if they missed more
than 10% of all the possible words. In order to ensure that
participants understood the framing instructions, an essay box appeared
on the following screen that asked them to describe the payoff
contingencies to which they had just been exposed. One hundred percent
of the participants were able to accurately report the instructions
they had just received.
Participants then proceeded to the experimental set of anagrams and were
given as much time as they wished to solve them. Once again, the
computer kept track of how much time was spent generating solutions to
each anagram, and participants were provided with the options of both
skipping anagrams and returning to previous anagrams. Following
completion of the second set, all participants were informed that they
had either succeeded in finding 90% or more of all the possible
solutions, or had succeeded in failing to miss more than 10% of all
the possible solutions. At this point, participants were probed for
suspiciousness regarding any aspects of the experiment. Although
several individuals indicated mild suspicion regarding the feedback
they received following the practice set of anagrams, none reported
completely doubting the feedback. Following the suspiciousness probe,
participants were debriefed, paid $5, and thanked.
Two independent judges, both of whom were blind to experimental
condition, and one of whom was blind to the experimental hypotheses,
coded the counterfactuals generated by each participant for evidence of
reflective versus evaluative processing along a 3-point (-1 =
reflective to +1 = evaluative) rating scale. An
example of a counterfactual that received a "-1" (reflective) was,
"I imagined the letters moving for me, instead of me going through
them all individually. Meaning, I imagined the word appearing for me,"
and an example of a counterfactual that received a "+1" (evaluative)
was, "I could have performed a lot better than I did if I applied more
thought." Inter-rater reliability on this measure was high (r
= .84), and thus the two coder's ratings were averaged.
3.1 Manipulation Check
Analyses were conducted to establish that the reflection and evaluation
manipulations elicited relative tendencies to engage in reflective
versus evaluative processing. As expected, a Direction X Mode ANOVA
performed on the mode scores revealed a main effect of Mode, F
(1, 148) = 19.02, p .001,
h = .11, indicating that participants
instructed to engage in reflection demonstrated more reflective
processing (M = -.20, SD = .85) than did those who
were instructed to engage in evaluation (M = +.39, SD
To examine our predictions regarding changes in persistence from the
first to the second anagram task, a persistence change score was
computed by subtracting the total amount of time spent on the practice
set (Set 1) of anagrams (M = 619.56 sec, SD = 297.44)
from the total amount of time spent on the experimental set (Set 2) of
anagrams (M = 706.60 sec, SD = 308.84). A Direction X
Mode X Regulatory Focus ANOVA was then performed on these change
scores. To begin, the analysis revealed a main effect of Direction,
F (1, 144) = 11.79, p = .001,
h = .08, indicating that participants who
generated upward counterfactuals showed a larger increase in
persistence (M = +154.65 sec, SD = 349.53) than did
those who generated downward counterfactuals (M = -1.6 sec,
SD = 246.61). Secondly, a significant Direction X Mode
interaction was obtained, F (1, 144) = 3.72, p = .05,
h = .03, indicating that participants who
were instructed to engage in upward evaluation showed a larger increase
in persistence (M = +225.67 sec, SD = 360.40) than
did those who were instructed to engage in upward reflection
(M = +86.85 sec, SD = 317.94), F (1, 144) =
3.94, p = .05, d = .41, whereas those who were
instructed to engage in downward reflection showed a larger increase in
persistence (M = +26.01 sec, SD = 274.79) than did
those who were instructed to engage in downward evaluation (M
= -31.63 sec, SD = 246.61), although not significantly,
F 1, d = .22.
Importantly, the Direction X Mode interaction was qualified by a
significant Direction X Mode X Regulatory Focus interaction, F
(1, 144) = 4.52, p = .035, h = .03.
To explore the nature of the 3-way interaction, the Direction X Mode
interaction was examined separately in the promotion and prevention
conditions (see Figure 2). In the promotion condition there was a
significant main effect of Direction, F (1, 72) = 12.51,
p = .001, h = .15, indicating that
participants who generated upward counterfactuals showed larger
increases in persistence (M = +238.25 sec, SD =
373.60) than did those who generated downward counterfactuals
(M = -26.69 sec, SD = 239.60). No other effects were
significant (all ps .29). In the
prevention condition, on the other hand, whereas neither the Direction
nor Mode main effects were significant (all ps
.26), the Direction X Mode interaction was significant, F (1,
72) = 10.03, p = .002, h = .12. As
depicted in Figure 2, whereas participants who were instructed to
engage in upward evaluation showed larger increases in persistence
(M = +174.76 sec, SD = 194.58) than did participants
who were instructed to engage in upward reflection (M = -8.76 sec,
SD = 342.63), F (1, 72) = 5.20, p = .03,
d = .66, participants who were instructed to engage in
downward reflection showed larger increases in persistence (M
= +118.06 sec, SD = 234.28) than did participants who were
instructed to engage in downward evaluation (M = -91.98 sec,
SD = 237.32), F (1, 72) = 4.93, p = .03,
d = .89.2
Figure 2: Change in persistence from Set 1 to Set 2 as a
function of direction, mode, and focus.
By examining the moderating role of promotion versus prevention concerns
on the interactive effects of counterfactual direction and processing
mode, the results of the present study provide additional insight into
the motivational consequences of counterfactual thinking. Consistent
with predictions, under promotion framing upward counterfactual
thinking in general elicited larger increases in persistence than did
downward counterfactual thinking in general, but under prevention
framing upward evaluation (comparing reality to a better reality)
elicited larger increases in persistence than did upward reflection
(focusing on a better reality), whereas downward reflection (focusing
on a worse reality) elicited larger increases in persistence than did
downward evaluation (comparing reality to a worse reality).
At the outset, specific hypotheses were offered with regard to the
regulatory focus orientation that might provide the best fit with each
type of counterfactual. First, we hypothesized that upward reflection
would provide a better regulatory fit with a promotion focus than with
a prevention focus because it gives rise to the eager simulation and
development of approach-oriented plans (Spiegel et al., 2004).
Providing additional support for this hypothesis, upward reflection was
found to elicit larger increases in persistence under promotion framing
than under prevention framing, F (1, 144) = 5.51, p =
.02, d = .70 (see Figure 2).
Secondly, we suggested that upward evaluation might provide a congruent
regulatory fit with both promotion and prevention concerns
because it focuses the individual simultaneously on the attainment of a
desired end-state (i.e., the counterfactual outcome) and the prevention
of an undesired end-state (i.e., the actual outcome). In support,
upward evaluation was to shown to elicit equivalent increases in
persistence under both promotion and prevention framing, F (1,
144) = 1.12, p = .29, d = .27.
Thirdly, we hypothesized that downward reflection should provide a good
regulatory fit with prevention focus because it focuses the individual
on the vigilant simulation and development of avoidance-related plans.
Consistent with this hypothesis, downward reflection elicited a larger
increase in persistence under prevention framing than it did under
promotion framing, F (1, 144) = 4.12, p = .05,
d = .48.
Finally, downward evaluation was not expected to be particularly
motivating in either regulatory focus context because it focuses the
individual on feeling better about the present state of affairs.
Consistent with this prediction, the results indicated that under
promotion framing downward counterfactual thinking in general elicited
smaller increases in persistence than did upward counterfactual
thinking in general, and under prevention framing downward reflection
elicited larger increases in persistence than did downward evaluation.
4.1 Implications for Research on Decision-Making and Choice
Higgins (2000, 2005) has suggested that people experience regulatory
fit when the manner of their engagement in an activity sustains their
goal orientation or interests regarding that activity. When there is
fit, people engage more strongly in what they are doing and feel right
about it. Regulatory fit theory has profound implications for research
on decision-making making and choice because it provides insight into
how individuals impute value. For example, Higgins et al. (2003)
measured participants' chronic regulatory focus orientation and were
then told that they could choose between a coffee mug (determined to be
more desirable in pre-testing) and a pen as a gift. Furthermore, half
of the participants were told to think about what they would gain by
choosing the mug or the pen (eager strategy), whereas the other half
were told to think about what they would lose by choosing the mug or
the pen (vigilant strategy). Participants were then asked either to
assess the price of the chosen mug or to offer a price to buy it.
According to the results, participants assigned a price up to 40%
higher for the same chosen coffee mug when their choice strategy fit
their regulatory orientation (promotion-eager; prevention-vigilant)
than when it did not fit (promotion-vigilant; prevention-eager). The
implication here is that when the experience of fit strengthens
evaluative reactions to choice options, the fit experience should exert
further effects on the likelihood that a particular option is chosen.
Importantly, moreover, regulatory fit is not expected to directly
affect the hedonic experience of an object or an event. Rather,
regulatory fit is posited to affect an individual's confidence
in his or her reaction to an object or event, and it is this reaction
that enhances evaluative responses.
In the language of regulatory fit theory, generating upward reflective
counterfactuals feels right in a promotion context, generating downward
reflective counterfactuals feels right in a prevention context, and
generating upward evaluative counterfactuals feels right in either a
promotion or prevention context, independent of the positive
or negative affect that may be accrued from generating the
counterfactual (i.e., one's hedonic experience of the event, as
determined by emotional responses to the counterfactual). This has
important implications for decision-making, as it suggests that the
generation of counterfactuals enhances the likelihood that individuals
will choose courses of action that fit with their preferred (chronic or
contextually determined) orientation - eagerness means for promotion,
vigilance means for prevention. To illustrate, a promotion-oriented
student who is seeking strategies for improving class performance would
be well-served by generating upward counterfactuals about prior
outcomes because such counterfactuals fit with the student's habitual
orientation. Not only should the student be more likely to select
promotion-oriented strategies (e.g., studying over a longer period of
time, asking more questions in class) but, importantly, the student
should also pursue such strategies with greater vigor because
the experience of regulatory fit enhances engagement strength. On the
other hand, a prevention-oriented student would be better served by
generating downward reflective counterfactuals. In addition to
enhancing the likelihood of selecting prevention-oriented strategies
(e.g., getting more sleep, socializing less), regulatory fit should
also enhance the strength of the student's engagement in such
strategies. More generally, if the manner in which an individual makes
a decision sustains the decision-maker's regulatory state, then it
should also increase the level of engagement or confidence in the
decision-maker's reaction toward a decision outcome. This suggests that
decision-makers are more likely to act upon useful inferences
(Roese, 1997) derived from counterfactuals under conditions of fit than
under conditions of non-fit.
This research was designed to provide empirical support for an emerging
Reflection and Evaluation Model (Markman & McMullen, 2003) that
specifies the motivational consequences of engaging in counterfactual
thinking. In contrast to early functional approaches (e.g., Markman et
al., 1993; McMullen, Markman, & Gavanski, 1995; Roese, 1997) that
ascribed a preparative function to upward (but not downward)
counterfactuals, and an affective enhancement function to downward (but
not upward) counterfactuals, the REM suggests that the emotional and
motivational consequences of counterfactual thinking can best be
understood when one considers how the direction of the counterfactual
simulation interacts with the mode in which the counterfactual
simulation is processed. In turn, the present work suggests that
individuals' strength of engagement toward goal pursuit should be
enhanced to the extent that there is a fit between the counterfactuals
they generate and their regulatory orientation.
Avnet, T., & Higgins, E. T. (2003). Locomotion, assessment, and
regulatory fit: Value transfer from "how" to "what."
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39,
Camacho, C. J., Higgins, E. T., & Luger, L. (2003). Moral value transfer
from regulatory fit: What feels right is right and what feels wrong is
wrong. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
Gleicher, F., Kost, K. A., Baker, S. M., Strathman, A. J., Richman, S. A.,
& Sherman, S. J. (1990). The role of counterfactual thinking in
judgments of affect. Personality and Social Psychology
Bulletin, 16, 284-295.
Gollwitzer, P. M., Heckhausen, H. and Steller, B. (1990) Deliberative vs.
implemental mind-sets: Cognitive tuning toward congruous thoughts and
information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the
persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology, 79, 701-721.
Higgins, E. T. (1998). Promotion and prevention: Regulatory focus as a
motivational principle. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in
experimental social psychology (Vol. 30, pp. 1-46). San Diego, CA:
Higgins, E. T. (2000). Making a good decision: Value from fit.
American Psychologist, 55, 1217-1230.
Higgins, E. T. (2005). Value from regulatory fit. Current
Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 209-213.
Higgins, E. T., Idson, L. C., Freitas, A. L., Spiegel, S., & Molden, D. C.
(2003). Transfer of value from fit. Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology, 84, 1140-1153.
Hur, T. (2000). Counterfactual thinking and regulatory focus: Upward
versus downward counterfactuals and promotion versus prevention.
Dissertation Abstracts International, 60, 6422B.
Jarvis, W. B. G. (2004). MediaLab [Computer software]. Columbus,
Johnson, J. T. (1986). The knowledge of what might have been:
Affective and attributional consequences of near outcomes. Personality
and Social Psychology Bulletin, 12, 51-62.
Johnson, M. K., & Sherman, S. J. (1990). Constructing and
reconstructing the past and future in the present. In E. T. Higgins &
R. M. Sorrentino (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and cognition:
Foundations of social behavior (Vol. 2, pp. 482-526). New
Kahneman, D., & Miller, D. T. (1986). Norm theory: Comparing
reality to its alternatives. Psychological Review, 93,
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1982). The simulation heuristic.
In D. Kahneman, P. Slovic, & A. Tversky (Eds.), Judgment under
uncertainty: Heuristics and biases (pp. 201-208). New York:
Cambridge University Press.
Karniol, R., & Ross, M. (1996). The motivational impact of
temporal focus: Thinking about the future and the past. Annual Review
of Psychology, 47, 593-620.
Landman, J., & Petty, R. (2000). "It could have been you":
How states exploit counterfactual thought to market lotteries.
Psychology and Marketing, 17, 299-321.
Mandel, D. R. (2003). Judgment dissociation theory: An analysis
of differences in causal, counterfactual, and covariational
reasoning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,
Mandel, D. R., Hilton, D. J., & Catellani, P. (2005). The
psychology of counterfactual thinking. New York, NY: Routledge.
Mandel, D. R., & Lehman, D. R. (1996). Counterfactual thinking and
ascriptions of cause and preventability. Journal of Personality
and Social Psychology, 71, 450-463.
Markman, K. D., Elizaga, R. A., Ratcliff, J. J., & McMullen, M. N. (in
press). The interplay between counterfactual reasoning and feedback
dynamics in producing inferences about the self. Thinking and
Markman, K. D., Gavanski, I., Sherman, S. J., & McMullen, M. N.
(1993). The mental simulation of better and worse possible
worlds. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 29,
Markman, K. D., Gavanski, I., Sherman, S. J., & McMullen, M. N.
(1995). The impact of perceived control on the imagination of
better and worse possible worlds. Personality and Social
Psychology Bulletin, 21, 588-595.
Markman, K. D., & McMullen, M. N. (2003). A reflection and
evaluation model of comparative thinking. Personality and Social
Psychology Review, 7, 244-267.
Markman, K. D., & McMullen, M. N. (2005). Reflective and
evaluative modes of mental simulation. In D. R. Mandel, D. J. Hilton, &
P. Catellani (Eds.), The psychology of counterfactual thinking
(pp. 77-93). London: Routledge.
Markman, K. D., Ratcliff, J. J., Mizoguchi, N., McMullen, M. N.,
& Elizaga, R. A. (in press). Assimilation and contrast in
counterfactual thinking and other mental simulation-based
comparison processes. In D. A. Stapel & J. Suls (Eds.),
Assimilation and contrast in social psychology. New
York: Psychology Press.
Markman, K. D., & Tetlock, P. E. (2000). Accountability and
close counterfactuals: The loser that nearly won and the winner
that nearly lost. Personality and Social Psychology
Bulletin, 26, 1213-1224.
McMullen, M. N. (1997). Affective contrast and assimilation in
counterfactual thinking. Journal of Experimental Social
Psychology, 33, 77-100.
McMullen, M. N., & Markman, K. D. (2000). Downward
counterfactuals and motivation: The wake-up call and the Pangloss
effect. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26,
McMullen, M. N., & Markman, K. D. (2002). Affective impact of
close counterfactuals: Implications of possible futures for possible
pasts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38,
McMullen, M. N., Markman, K. D., & Gavanski, I. (1995). Living in neither
the best nor worst of all possible worlds: Antecedents and consequences
of upward and downward counterfactual thinking. In N. J. Roese & J. M.
Olson (Eds.), What might have been: The social psychology of
counterfactual thinking (pp. 133-167). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Medvec, V. H., Madey, S. F., & Gilovich, T. (1995). When less is
more: Counterfactual thinking and satisfaction among Olympic
athletes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
Mellers, B. A., Schwartz, A., Ho, K., & Ritov, I. (1997).
Decision affect theory: Emotional reactions to the outcomes of risky
options. Psychological Science, 8, 423-429.
Miller, D. T., & Gunasegaram, S. (1990). Temporal order and the
perceived mutability of events: Implications for blame assignment.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59,
Miller, D. T., Turnbull, W., & McFarland, C. (1990).
Counterfactual thinking and social perception: Thinking about
what might have been. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in
Experimental Social Psychology, (Vol. 23, pp. 305-331). New
York: Academic Press.
Morris, M. W., & Moore, P. C. (2000). The lessons we (don't)
learn: Counterfactual thinking and organizational accountability after
a close call. Administrative Science Quarterly, 45,
Nasco, S. A., & Marsh, K. L. (1999). Gaining control through
counterfactual thinking. Personality and Social Psychology
Bulletin, 25, 556-568.
Oettingen, G. (1996). Positive fantasy and motivation. In P. M.
Gollwitzer & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), The psychology of action: Linking
cognition and motivation to action (pp. 236-259). New York:
Oettingen, G., Pak, H., & Schnetter, K. (2001).
Self-regulation of goal setting: Turning free fantasies about the
future into binding goals. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 80, 736-753.
Parks, C. D., Sanna, L. J., & Posey, D. C. (2003). Retrospection
in social dilemmas: How thinking about the past affects future
cooperation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
Pennington, G. L., & Roese, N. J. (2002). Regulatory focus and
mental simulation. In S. J. Spencer, M. P. Zanna, & J. M. Olson (Eds.),
Motivated social perception: The Ontario Symposium (Vol. 9,
pp. 277-298). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Roese, N. J. (1994). The functional basis of counterfactual
thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
Roese, N. J. (1997). Counterfactual thinking.
Psychological Bulletin, 121, 133-148.
Roese, N. J., Hur, T., & Pennington, G. L. (1999).
Counterfactual thinking and regulatory focus: Implications for action
versus inaction and sufficiency versus necessity. Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1109-1120.
Sanna, L. J. (1996). Defensive pessimism, optimism, and
simulating alternatives: Some ups and downs of prefactual and
counterfactual thinking. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 71, 1020-1036.
Sanna, L. J., Stocker, S. L., & Clarke, J. A. (2003).
Rumination, imagination, and personality: Specters of the past
and future in the present. In E. C. Chang & L. J. Sanna (Eds.),
Virtue, vice, and personality: The complexity of
behavior (pp. 105-124). Washington: American Psychological
Schwarz, N., & Bless, H. (1992). Constructing reality and its
alternatives: An inclusion/exclusion model of assimilation and
contrast effects in social judgment. In L. L. Martin & A.
Tesser (Eds.), The construction of social judgments (pp.
217-245). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Segura, S., & Morris, M. W. (2005). Scenario simulations in
learning: Forms and functions at the individual and organizational
levels. In D. R. Mandel, D. J. Hilton, & P. Catellani (Eds.), The
psychology of counterfactual thinking (pp. 94-109). London:
Shah, J., Higgins, E. T., & Friedman, R. (1998). Performance
incentives and means: How regulatory focus influences goal
attainment. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 74, 285-293.
Sherif, M., & Hovland, C. I. (1961). Social judgment:
Assimilation and contrast effects in communication and attitude
change. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Spiegel, S., Grant-Pillow, H., & Higgins, E. T. (2004). How
regulatory fit enhances motivational strength during goal
pursuit. European Journal of Social Psychology, 34,
Taylor, S. E., & Schneider, S. K. (1989). Coping and the
simulation of events. Social Cognition, 7,
Wayment, H. A. (2004). It could have been me: Vicarious victims
and disaster-focused distress. Personality and Social
Psychology Bulletin, 30, 515-528.
Wells, G. L., & Gavanski, I. (1989). Mental simulation of causality.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56,
correspondence to Keith D. Markman, Department of Psychology, Ohio
University, 200 Porter Hall, Athens, OH 45701. E-mail:
2 Given that persistence is hypothesized to
be the mediator of any effects on performance, the analysis of
performance is somewhat secondary and is therefore reported in a
footnote. A performance change score was computed by subtracting the
total number of Set 1 anagrams solved correctly from the total number
of Set 2 anagrams solved correctly. Overall, participants performed
better on the second set of anagrams than they did on the first set of
anagrams (M = +.84, SD = 3.59), t(151) =
2.87, p = .005. However, a Direction X Mode X Regulatory Focus
ANOVA performed on these change scores revealed no significant main
effects or interactions (all ps .16).
File translated from
On 16 Nov 2006, 08:14.