Counterfactual thinking is the cognitive process in which individuals can simulate alternative realities, to think about how things could have turned out differently, with statements such as ‘what if’ and ‘if only’. Counterfactuals can be either upward, in which alternative realities are improved, or downward, in which alternative realities are worsened. Reflecting on previous outcomes can make individuals experience regret and this review will focus on the effects of counterfactual thinking and feelings of regret, which has been referred to as a ‘counterfactual emotion’.
Opportunities and regret
Roese & Summerville (2005) put forward the idea that regret is based upon an opportunity principle, meaning that greater opportunity breeds regret. The principle is based upon two factors, 1) lost opportunity initiates cognitive dissonance reduction and 2) regret spurs corrective actions and such actions only make sense when opportunities remain open. In the meta-analysis of nine papers by Roese and Summerville, they found that the top six biggest regrets in life were (in descending order) education, career, romance, parenting, the self, and leisure. It’s significant that education is the biggest regret because people in modern western society have many opportunities to continue their education throughout life. In addition two laboratory experiments were carried out on college students to test if there was a link between the rankings of regret with opportunity effects, one required participants to recall one regret then place it in a set category of life domains, the other focused on measuring high and low opportunities and its relation to regret intensity. They found that life domains ranked with high opportunity compared to low opportunity were more likely to be vividly regretful. This is the first study support the claim that people’s biggest regrets in life are linked to where they see the most opportunity for improvement.
However there are limitations to Roese & Summerville’s (2005) studies some of which they mentioned in the discussion section, which are as follows-1) the sample was over representative of highly educated western individuals, 2) in the meta-analyse, the presentation of regret categories could have exaggerated frequencies by cueing recall, and they could have also created demand characteristics by supplying categories, 3) there was a large discrepancy in sample size between studies 2a and 2b, the sample for 2b was three times larger than that of 2a, which may have implications for the generalisation of results. Beike, Markman & Karadogan (2009) also provide a critique, citing confounding of external control, opportunity, and constraint. They argued that because Roese and Summerville’s focus was on future possibilities to take action, they refer to their theory as the future opportunity principle. Beike, Markman & Karadogan proposed that regrets are more likely to emerge with the perception of lost opportunity. As people regret outcomes that could have been altered in the past but can no longer be changed at the present time, but if future opportunities remain open then feelings of regret should diminish, and increase if perceived opportunities become unattainable. Beike, Markman & Karadogan (2009) modelled three studies based on those of Roese & Summerville (2005) and found that their studies provided stronger empirical support for the lost opportunity principle than the future opportunity principle. The results showed that more commonly regretted life domains e.g. education and career are perceived to be less amendable in the future compared to less commonly regretted life domains. They also showed that outcomes indicating perceptions of lost opportunities resulted in regrets that were more intense than those of outcomes that provided corrective opportunities in the future.