The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking: New Evidence, New Challenges, New Insights

Neal J. Roese, Kai Epstude

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

  • 6 Citations

Abstract

Thinking about what might have been—counterfactual thinking—is a common feature of the mental landscape. Key questions about counterfactual thinking center on why and how they occur and what downstream cognitive and behavioral outcomes they engender. The functional theory of counterfactual thinking aims to answer these and other questions by drawing connections to goal cognition and by specifying distinct functions that counterfactuals may serve, including preparing for goal pursuit and regulating affect. Since the publication of our last theoretical statement (Epstude & Roese, 2008), numerous lines of empirical evidence support, or are rendered more readily understandable, when glimpsed through the lens of the functional theory. However, other lines of evidence have called into question the very basis of the theory. We integrate a broad range of findings spanning several psychological disciplines so as to present an updated version of the functional theory. We integrate findings from social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, and health psychology that support the claim that episodic counterfactual thoughts are geared mainly toward preparation and goal striving and are generally beneficial for individuals. Counterfactuals may influence behavior via either a content-specific pathway (in which the counterfactual insight informs behavior change) or a content-neutral pathway (in which the negative affect from the counterfactual motivates generic behavior change). Challenges to the functional theory of counterfactual thinking center on whether counterfactuals typically cohere to a structural form amenable to goal striving and whether behavioral consequences are mainly dysfunctional rather than functional. Integrating both supporting and challenging evidence, we offer a new theoretical synthesis intended to clarify the literature and guide future research in multiple disciplines of psychology.

LanguageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationAdvances in Experimental Social Psychology
PublisherAcademic Press Inc.
Pages1-79
Number of pages79
Volume56
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

Publication series

NameAdvances in Experimental Social Psychology
Volume56
ISSN (Print)0065-2601

Fingerprint

Psychology
Behavioral Medicine
Clinical Psychology
Social Psychology
Cognition
Lenses
Publications
Thinking
Developmental Psychology
Cognitive Neuroscience

Keywords

  • Affect
  • Attribution
  • Counterfactual
  • Emotion
  • Episodic
  • Functional theory
  • Goal
  • Insula
  • Mental models
  • Mental simulation
  • Nucleus accumbens
  • Orbitofrontal
  • Regret
  • Regulatory
  • Self-regulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology

Cite this

Roese, N. J., & Epstude, K. (2017). The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking: New Evidence, New Challenges, New Insights. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 56, pp. 1-79). (Advances in Experimental Social Psychology; Vol. 56). Academic Press Inc.. DOI: 10.1016/bs.aesp.2017.02.001
Roese, Neal J. ; Epstude, Kai. / The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking : New Evidence, New Challenges, New Insights. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Vol. 56 Academic Press Inc., 2017. pp. 1-79 (Advances in Experimental Social Psychology).
@inbook{f46bdb5453474a4d869fb61b2d83f89f,
title = "The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking: New Evidence, New Challenges, New Insights",
abstract = "Thinking about what might have been—counterfactual thinking—is a common feature of the mental landscape. Key questions about counterfactual thinking center on why and how they occur and what downstream cognitive and behavioral outcomes they engender. The functional theory of counterfactual thinking aims to answer these and other questions by drawing connections to goal cognition and by specifying distinct functions that counterfactuals may serve, including preparing for goal pursuit and regulating affect. Since the publication of our last theoretical statement (Epstude & Roese, 2008), numerous lines of empirical evidence support, or are rendered more readily understandable, when glimpsed through the lens of the functional theory. However, other lines of evidence have called into question the very basis of the theory. We integrate a broad range of findings spanning several psychological disciplines so as to present an updated version of the functional theory. We integrate findings from social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, and health psychology that support the claim that episodic counterfactual thoughts are geared mainly toward preparation and goal striving and are generally beneficial for individuals. Counterfactuals may influence behavior via either a content-specific pathway (in which the counterfactual insight informs behavior change) or a content-neutral pathway (in which the negative affect from the counterfactual motivates generic behavior change). Challenges to the functional theory of counterfactual thinking center on whether counterfactuals typically cohere to a structural form amenable to goal striving and whether behavioral consequences are mainly dysfunctional rather than functional. Integrating both supporting and challenging evidence, we offer a new theoretical synthesis intended to clarify the literature and guide future research in multiple disciplines of psychology.",
keywords = "Affect, Attribution, Counterfactual, Emotion, Episodic, Functional theory, Goal, Insula, Mental models, Mental simulation, Nucleus accumbens, Orbitofrontal, Regret, Regulatory, Self-regulation",
author = "Roese, {Neal J.} and Kai Epstude",
year = "2017",
month = "1",
day = "1",
doi = "10.1016/bs.aesp.2017.02.001",
language = "English (US)",
volume = "56",
series = "Advances in Experimental Social Psychology",
publisher = "Academic Press Inc.",
pages = "1--79",
booktitle = "Advances in Experimental Social Psychology",
address = "United States",

}

Roese, NJ & Epstude, K 2017, The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking: New Evidence, New Challenges, New Insights. in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. vol. 56, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 56, Academic Press Inc., pp. 1-79. DOI: 10.1016/bs.aesp.2017.02.001

The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking : New Evidence, New Challenges, New Insights. / Roese, Neal J.; Epstude, Kai.

Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Vol. 56 Academic Press Inc., 2017. p. 1-79 (Advances in Experimental Social Psychology; Vol. 56).

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

TY - CHAP

T1 - The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking

T2 - New Evidence, New Challenges, New Insights

AU - Roese,Neal J.

AU - Epstude,Kai

PY - 2017/1/1

Y1 - 2017/1/1

N2 - Thinking about what might have been—counterfactual thinking—is a common feature of the mental landscape. Key questions about counterfactual thinking center on why and how they occur and what downstream cognitive and behavioral outcomes they engender. The functional theory of counterfactual thinking aims to answer these and other questions by drawing connections to goal cognition and by specifying distinct functions that counterfactuals may serve, including preparing for goal pursuit and regulating affect. Since the publication of our last theoretical statement (Epstude & Roese, 2008), numerous lines of empirical evidence support, or are rendered more readily understandable, when glimpsed through the lens of the functional theory. However, other lines of evidence have called into question the very basis of the theory. We integrate a broad range of findings spanning several psychological disciplines so as to present an updated version of the functional theory. We integrate findings from social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, and health psychology that support the claim that episodic counterfactual thoughts are geared mainly toward preparation and goal striving and are generally beneficial for individuals. Counterfactuals may influence behavior via either a content-specific pathway (in which the counterfactual insight informs behavior change) or a content-neutral pathway (in which the negative affect from the counterfactual motivates generic behavior change). Challenges to the functional theory of counterfactual thinking center on whether counterfactuals typically cohere to a structural form amenable to goal striving and whether behavioral consequences are mainly dysfunctional rather than functional. Integrating both supporting and challenging evidence, we offer a new theoretical synthesis intended to clarify the literature and guide future research in multiple disciplines of psychology.

AB - Thinking about what might have been—counterfactual thinking—is a common feature of the mental landscape. Key questions about counterfactual thinking center on why and how they occur and what downstream cognitive and behavioral outcomes they engender. The functional theory of counterfactual thinking aims to answer these and other questions by drawing connections to goal cognition and by specifying distinct functions that counterfactuals may serve, including preparing for goal pursuit and regulating affect. Since the publication of our last theoretical statement (Epstude & Roese, 2008), numerous lines of empirical evidence support, or are rendered more readily understandable, when glimpsed through the lens of the functional theory. However, other lines of evidence have called into question the very basis of the theory. We integrate a broad range of findings spanning several psychological disciplines so as to present an updated version of the functional theory. We integrate findings from social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, and health psychology that support the claim that episodic counterfactual thoughts are geared mainly toward preparation and goal striving and are generally beneficial for individuals. Counterfactuals may influence behavior via either a content-specific pathway (in which the counterfactual insight informs behavior change) or a content-neutral pathway (in which the negative affect from the counterfactual motivates generic behavior change). Challenges to the functional theory of counterfactual thinking center on whether counterfactuals typically cohere to a structural form amenable to goal striving and whether behavioral consequences are mainly dysfunctional rather than functional. Integrating both supporting and challenging evidence, we offer a new theoretical synthesis intended to clarify the literature and guide future research in multiple disciplines of psychology.

KW - Affect

KW - Attribution

KW - Counterfactual

KW - Emotion

KW - Episodic

KW - Functional theory

KW - Goal

KW - Insula

KW - Mental models

KW - Mental simulation

KW - Nucleus accumbens

KW - Orbitofrontal

KW - Regret

KW - Regulatory

KW - Self-regulation

UR - http://www.scopus.com/inward/record.url?scp=85017457127&partnerID=8YFLogxK

UR - http://www.scopus.com/inward/citedby.url?scp=85017457127&partnerID=8YFLogxK

U2 - 10.1016/bs.aesp.2017.02.001

DO - 10.1016/bs.aesp.2017.02.001

M3 - Chapter

VL - 56

T3 - Advances in Experimental Social Psychology

SP - 1

EP - 79

BT - Advances in Experimental Social Psychology

PB - Academic Press Inc.

ER -

Roese NJ, Epstude K. The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking: New Evidence, New Challenges, New Insights. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Vol. 56. Academic Press Inc.2017. p. 1-79. (Advances in Experimental Social Psychology). Available from, DOI: 10.1016/bs.aesp.2017.02.001