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Counterfactual thinking and regulatory fit

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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.
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Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 2006, pp. 98–107
Counterfactual thinking and regulatory ?t
Keith D. Markman?
Matthew N. McMullen
Ohio University
Montana State University-Billings
Ronald A. Elizaga and Nobuko Mizoguchi
Ohio University
Abstract
According to regulatory ?t theory (Higgins, 2000), when people make decisions with strategies that sustain their reg-
ulatory 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 ?t
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., ?nd 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 ?nd 90% or more of all the possible words) upward evaluation (comparing reality to a better reality) elicited larger
increases in persistence than did upward re?ection (focusing on a better reality), whereas downward re?ection (focusing
on a worse reality) elicited larger increases in persistence than did downward evaluation (comparing reality to a worse
reality). In all, the present ?ndings suggest that the generation of counterfactuals enhances the likelihood that individuals
will engage in courses of action that ?t with their regulatory focus orientation.
Keywords: Counterfactual, regulatory ?t, assimilation, contrast, motivation.
1 Introduction
Extending these early ?ndings, researchers began to
stress a distinction between upward and downward coun-
Individuals are commonly beset by thoughts of what
terfactuals (Markman, et al., 1993; McMullen, Markman,
would, might, or could have been if events had taken
& Gavanski, 1995; Roese, 1994; Sanna, 1996). Upward
a different turn. This phenomenon — termed “counter-
counterfactuals compare reality to a more desirable al-
factual thinking” — has generated a great deal of inter-
ternative world (e.g., “If only I had pumped my brakes,
est over the past 25 years (for reviews, see Miller, Turn-
I could have avoided the accident”), whereas downward
bull, & McFarland, 1990; Roese, 1997; Mandel, Hilton,
counterfactuals compare reality to a less desirable alter-
& Catellani, 2005). In addition to research implicating
native world (e.g., “If I hadn’t been wearing my seat belt,
counterfactuals in judgments of causality, blame, suspi-
I could have been killed”). Through an affective con-
cion, and victim compensation (e.g., Kahneman & Miller,
trast mechanism (Schwarz & Bless, 1992; Sherif & Hov-
1986; Miller & Gunasegaram, 1990; Wells & Gavanski,
land, 1961), upward counterfactuals can elicit negative
1989), work has focused on how counterfactual think-
affect whereas downward counterfactuals can elicit posi-
ing in?uences emotions. For instance, research suggested
tive affect (Markman et al., 1993; Markman, et al., 1995;
that people will have a stronger emotional reaction to an
Medvec, Madey, & Gilovich, 1995; Roese, 1994; Sanna,
outcome to the extent that counterfactual alternatives are
1996).
highly salient (Gleicher et al., 1990; Johnson, 1986; Kah-
In turn, researchers also attempted to describe the pos-
neman & Miller, 1986). Thus, a traveler who misses a
sible functions that upward and downward counterfac-
plane ?ight by several minutes is expected to experience
tual thoughts might serve. One identi?ed function is
more negative affect than is a traveler who misses the
the contrast-based affective response to downward coun-
same ?ight by two hours (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982).
terfactuals (e.g., McMullen, 1997; Roese, 1997; Taylor
& Schneider, 1989) — a given outcome will be judged
more favorably to the extent that a less desirable alter-
?Direct correspondence to Keith D. Markman, Department of Psy-
chology, Ohio University, 200 Porter Hall, Athens, OH 45701. E-mail:
native is salient. By highlighting how the situation or
markman@ohio.edu
outcome could easily have been worse, downward coun-
98

Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 2006
Counterfactual thinking
99
terfactuals can enhance coping and well being. On the
tal simulation operate during comparative thinking. The
other hand, upward counterfactuals are posited to serve a
?rst mode is re?ection, an experiential (“as if”) mode of
preparative function. Thus, although upward counterfac-
thinking whereby one imagines that information about
tuals may devalue the actual outcome and make people
the comparison reference point is true of, or is part of,
feel worse (e.g., Markman & McMullen, 2003; Mellers,
oneself or one’s present standing, and the second mode is
Schwartz, Ho, & Ritov, 1997; Roese, 1994), simulating
evaluation, whereby the outcome of a mental simulation
routes to better realities may help individuals improve
run is used as a reference point against which to evaluate
upon their outcomes in the future (Johnson & Sherman,
oneself or one’s present standing.
1990; Karniol & Ross, 1996; Taylor & Schneider, 1989).
Figure 1 depicts the interaction between simulation di-
Providing initial empirical support for the motivational
rection and simulation mode. To illustrate, consider the
functions of counterfactual thinking, Markman, Gavan-
student who receives a B on an exam but realizes that an
ski, Sherman, and McMullen (1993) had participants
A was easily attainable with some additional studying.
play blackjack against a computer-simulated opponent
In the case of upward evaluation, the student switches
and led them to believe that they would either be play-
attention between the outcome (a grade of B) and the
ing no additional hands of blackjack or three additional
counterfactual reference point (a grade of A). According
hands of blackjack. Participants who expected to play
to the REM, such attentional switching (“I got a B. . . I
again demonstrated a greater tendency to generate up-
could have gotten an A but instead I got a B”) involves
ward counterfactuals relative to those who did not expect
comparing the outcome to the counterfactual reference
to play again. According to Markman et al., participants
point and thereby instigates evaluative processing (see
who expected to play again generated upward counterfac-
also Oettingen, Pak, & Schnetter, 2001). In the case of
tuals because they needed preparative information to help
upward re?ection, however, the student’s attention is fo-
them perform better. On the other hand, participants who
cused mainly on the counterfactual reference point itself.
did not expect to play again needed no such information
Focusing on the counterfactual instigates re?ective pro-
and, instead, wanted only to feel good about their current
cessing whereby the student considers the implications of
performance. Thus, the downward counterfactuals they
the counterfactual and temporarily experiences the coun-
generated served the affective function. Roese (1994) fol-
terfactual as if it were real (“What if I had actually got-
lowed up this work by directly manipulating upward and
ten an A?”). In a sense, the student is “transported” into
downward counterfactual generation in order to examine
the counterfactual world (Green & Brock, 2000). Like-
their subsequent effects on both motivation and behavior.
wise, consider the case of a driver who pulls away from
Participants induced to generate upward counterfactuals
the curb without carefully checking rear and side-view
performed better on an anagram task than did those who
mirrors, and subsequently slams on the brakes as a large
generated downward counterfactuals (Morris & Moore,
truck whizzes by. In the case of downward evaluation,
2000; Nasco & Marsh, 1999; Parks, Sanna, & Posey,
the driver switches attention between the counterfactual
2003).
reference point (being hit by the truck) and the outcome
Notably, all of the studies reviewed thus far have
(not being hit by the truck), thereby instigating evaluative
focused exclusively on the emotional and motivational
processing (“I was fortunate to not have been hit by that
consequences of contrastive counterfactual generation
truck”). In the case of downward re?ection, however, the
whereby judgments are displaced away from the coun-
driver’s attention is mainly focused on the counterfactual
terfactual reference point. However, recent theorizing
itself, thereby instigating re?ective processing (“I nearly
and research have suggested that assimilative counter-
got hit by that truck”).
factual generation whereby judgments are pulled toward
The evidence for assimilative responses to counterfac-
the counterfactual reference point are also possible (e.g.,
tuals that has accumulated so far has mostly focused on
Landman & Petty, 2000; Markman, Elizaga, Ratcliff, &
affective reactions — upward and downward counterfac-
McMullen, in press; Markman & McMullen, 2003, 2005;
tuals can engender both positive and negative affect (e.g.,
Markman, Ratcliff, Mizoguchi, McMullen, & Elizaga, in
McMullen, 1997). The present paper, however, exam-
press; Markman & Tetlock, 2000; McMullen, 1997; Mc-
ines the motivational consequences of upward and down-
Mullen & Markman, 2000, 2002; Wayment, 2004).
ward assimilative and contrastive counterfactuals. To do
In order to account for how assimilation and contrast
so, we consider the interaction between simulation direc-
effects can both arise following the generation of counter-
tion (upward versus downward) and simulation mode (re-
factuals, Markman and McMullen (2003; see also Mark-
?ective versus evaluative). According to the REM, up-
man & McMullen, 2005; Markman et al., in press) de-
ward evaluation should be motivationally superior to up-
veloped the Re?ection and Evaluation Model (REM) of
ward re?ection because the former is more likely to spec-
comparative thinking. At the heart of the model is the as-
ify implementation strategies that allow one to evaluate
sertion that two psychologically distinct modes of men-
the observed consequences of one’s actions and imple-

Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 2006
Counterfactual thinking
100
Mode
Re?ection
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.”
Figure 1: The interaction between simulation direction and mode.
ment novel strategies (see also Gollwitzer, Heckhausen,
1.1 Regulatory focus and ?t theory
& Stellar, 1990; Segura & Morris, 2005). Upward re-
?ection, on the other hand, functions very much like a
The present work attempts to build on the REM account
positive fantasy that can engender anticipatory consump-
by examining the consequences of counterfactual gener-
tion of motivation. According to Oettingen (1996), in a
ation when individuals are focused on either promotion
positive fantasy,
or prevention goals (e.g., Higgins, 1998, 2000; see also
Hur, 2000; Pennington & Roese, 2002; Roese, Hur, &
Pennington, 1999). According to regulatory focus theory
“. . . a person may ‘experience’ the future event ahead
(Higgins, 1998), promotion-oriented individuals are fo-
of time and may color the future experience more brightly
cused on growth, advancement, and accomplishment and
and joyfully than reality would ever permit. Therefore
thus tend to pursue strategies aimed at approaching de-
the need to act is not felt, and the thorny path leading to
sirable outcomes. On the other hand, prevention-oriented
implementing the fantasy may be easily overlooked” (pp.
individuals are focused on protection, safety, and respon-
238-239).
sibility and thus tend to pursue strategies aimed at avoid-
ing undesirable outcomes. Within the context of coun-
The divergence between the REM and other functional
terfactual thinking, a promotion focus should encourage
approaches is perhaps even more evident when down-
individuals to devise strategies (e.g., putting more ef-
ward counterfactuals are considered. Previous models of
fort into school work) designed to achieve outcomes that
counterfactual thinking and motivation (e.g., Markman et
are more favorable than the actual outcome, whereas a
al., 1993; Roese, 1994, 1997), and more recent and gen-
prevention focus should encourage the development of
eral models of mental simulation (e.g., Oettingen, 1996;
strategies (e.g., checking all rear-view and side mirrors
Oettingen et al., 2001; Sanna, Stocker, & Clarke, 2003)
before pulling out of a parking space) that attempt to
have contended that goal-based mental simulations nec-
avoid outcomes that are less favorable than the actual out-
essarily involve contrasts with reality. The REM, on the
come.
other hand, predicts that whereas downward re?ection
Recent research examining value and decision making
should enhance motivation in achievement domains be-
has shown that the choice strategy or the manner in which
cause it raises an individual’s awareness of the possibil-
an object is chosen can affect the object’s perceived value
ity that a negative goal-state could have been attained
(e.g., Avnet & Higgins, 2003; Camacho, Higgins, &
(see also Wayment, 2004), downward evaluation should
Luger, 2003; Higgins, Idson, Freitas, Spiegel, & Molden,
engender complacency because it suggests that a nega-
2003), and this effect on value has been termed the reg-
tive goal-state has been successfully avoided. In an ini-
ulatory ?t effect (e.g., Higgins, 2000, 2005). Accord-
tial test of these ideas, McMullen and Markman (2000,
ing to regulatory ?t theory, when people engage in de-
Study 3) found that students reported less motivation in
cisions or choices with strategies that sustain their orien-
a class following the generation of contrastive downward
tation, they “feel right” about what they are doing, and
counterfactuals about their ?rst exam score, but reported
this “feeling-right” experience then transfers to subse-
more motivation following the generation of assimila-
quent choices, decisions, and evaluations. For example,
tive downward counterfactuals. Importantly, however,
Avnet and Higgins (2003) found that people offered more
whereas McMullen and Markman (2000) measured only
of their own money to buy the same chosen book light
intentions to perform better in the future, the present re-
when the choice strategy they used ?t their regulatory ori-
search obtained behavioral measures of persistence and
entation than when it did not ?t, and Higgins et al. (2003)
performance following counterfactual generation. More-
found that people assigned a price up to 40% higher for
over, whereas McMullen and Markman (2000) focused
the same chosen coffee mug when their choice strategy
only on downward counterfactuals, the present research
?t their regulatory orientation than when it did not ?t.
focused on the motivational consequences of both down-
Regulatory ?t theory also predicts that motivational
ward and upward counterfactuals.
strength will be enhanced when the manner in which peo-

Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 2006
Counterfactual thinking
101
ple work toward a goal sustains (rather than disrupts)
tainment of a desired end-state (i.e., the counterfactual
their regulatory orientation, and that this enhanced mo-
outcome) and the avoidance-related plans associated with
tivational strength should in turn improve efforts at goal
the prevention of an undesired end-state (i.e., the actual
attainment. Recently, Spiegel, Grant-Pillow, and Hig-
outcome). Thus, upward evaluation and upward re?ec-
gins (2004) applied this notion to the domain of mental
tion should both be motivating in a promotion context,
simulation. These researchers hypothesized that people
whereas upward evaluation should be more motivating
with a promotion focus who eagerly simulate and develop
than upward re?ection in a prevention context. Secondly,
approach-oriented plans should perform better at a task
we hypothesize that downward re?ection should provide
than people with a promotion focus who vigilantly simu-
a good regulatory ?t with prevention focus because it fo-
late and develop avoidance-oriented plans, whereas peo-
cuses the individual on the vigilant simulation and devel-
ple with a prevention focus who vigilantly simulate and
opment of avoidance-related plans, whereas downward
develop avoidance-oriented plans should perform better
evaluation should not be motivating in any context, as it
at a task than people with a prevention focus who ea-
merely focuses the individual on feeling better about the
gerly simulate and develop approach-oriented plans. In
present state of affairs. Thus, whereas neither downward
support, Spiegel et al. (2004, Experiment 1) found that
re?ection nor downward evaluation should be motivating
participants with regulatory ?t between their predominant
in a promotion context, downward re?ection should be
regulatory focus and the type of plans they mentally sim-
more motivating than downward evaluation in a preven-
ulated were 50% more likely to turn in a report on time
tion context. Overall, then, in a promotion context up-
than participants without regulatory ?t.
ward counterfactuals should be motivating and downward
In a similar vein, we suggest that counterfactuals will
counterfactuals should not, whereas in a prevention con-
enhance motivational strength to the extent that there is
text, upward evaluation and downward re?ection should
regulatory ?t between the counterfactual and the predom-
be motivating and upward re?ection and downward eval-
inant regulatory focus. The initial formulation of the
uation should not.
REM (Markman & McMullen, 2003) made the general
prediction that upward counterfactuals should be more
associated with promotion concerns, whereas downward
1.2 Study Overview
counterfactuals (and downward re?ection in particular)
should be more associated with prevention concerns. In a
Participants completed an initial set of anagrams, re-
re?nement of this initial prediction, however, we hypoth-
ceived performance feedback, and were then instructed
esize that upward evaluation (i.e., the explicit comparison
to generate either upward or downward counterfactuals
of reality to an imagined better reality) may be associated
about their performance. Subsequently, participants were
with both a promotion and a prevention focus. Roese
instructed to either re?ect upon the counterfactual they
(1997) has characterized upward counterfactual thoughts
generated or evaluate their performance by comparing it
as being “. . . part of a virtual, rather than an actual, pro-
to the counterfactual they generated. Participants then
cess of avoidance behavior. . . ” (p. 135), and Mandel and
completed a second set of anagrams. Importantly, how-
his colleagues (e.g., Mandel, 2003; Mandel & Lehman,
ever, the incentive for completing the second set of ana-
1996) have provided evidence that upward counterfactu-
grams was framed either in terms of gaining or not gain-
als are applied most commonly toward how an outcome
ing an extra dollar for the promotion focus (from a start-
could have been avoided and prevented. More generally,
ing point of $4), or in terms of losing or not losing a dol-
then, upward counterfactual thinking may focus one on
lar for the prevention focus (from a starting point of $5).
how an actual negative outcome can be avoided in the
Framing the same objective incentive (i.e., $5 for success
future, but can also suggest means by which one can ap-
and $4 for failure) in terms of the possibility of either
proach a relatively more favorable future outcome.
gaining extra money or not, or the possibility of losing
In the present paper, we offer new and more speci?c
money or not, allowed us to examine the interactive ef-
predictions regarding the moderating role of promotion
fects of simulation direction, simulation mode, and regu-
versus prevention concerns on the motivational conse-
latory focus context on motivation independent of differ-
quences of counterfactual thinking. First, we hypothe-
ences in the actual incentive (Shah, Higgins, & Friedman,
size that whereas upward re?ection provides a good reg-
1998).
ulatory ?t with promotion focus because it gives rise
Overall, we predicted that regulatory focus would in-
to the eager simulation and development of approach-
teract with simulation direction and mode in the follow-
oriented plans (Spiegel et al., 2004), upward evaluation
ing way:
should provide a good regulatory ?t with both promotion
1. Under promotion framing, upward counterfactual
and prevention foci because it focuses the individual on
thinking will elicit a larger increase in persistence than
both the approach-related plans associated with the at-
will downward counterfactual thinking; and

Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 2006
Counterfactual thinking
102
2. Under prevention framing, upward evaluation will
set were taken from practice items developed by Shah et
elicit a larger increase in persistence than will upward re-
al. (1998), and the others were developed by the present
?ection, whereas downward re?ection will elicit a larger
authors. The ten anagrams used in the experimental set
increase in persistence than will downward evaluation.
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
2 Method
four possible solutions.
Participants worked at their own pace and were given
2.1 Participants and Design
as much time as they wished to complete the set of ana-
One hundred sixty-six male and female introductory psy-
grams. The computer kept track of how long participants
chology students at Ohio University participated in ex-
spent generating solutions to each anagram. Following
change for course credit. The data from 14 participants in
completion of the ?rst set, all participants received accu-
the downward counterfactual condition were eliminated
rate information regarding their performance, but inaccu-
because they responded incorrectly to the counterfactual
rate information concerning the total number of possible
solicitation (i.e., they generated upward counterfactuals
solutions by employing the following feedback format:
in addition to, or instead of, downward counterfactuals).
“Out of ‘2X’ possible solutions, you correctly found ‘X’
The remaining 152 participants were randomly assigned
solutions.” Thus, for example, a participant who found
to the conditions of a 2 (Direction: upward vs. down-
12 correct solutions across the entire practice set of ana-
ward) X 2 (Mode: re?ective vs. evaluative) X 2 (Regula-
grams was told that, “Out of 24 possible solutions, you
tory Focus Framing: promotion vs. prevention) between-
correctly found 12 solutions.” The purpose of providing
subjects design. Participants were run on separate IBM
“2X” feedback was to leave each participant with equiva-
computers in groups no larger than four.
lent “room” to generate either upward or downward coun-
terfactuals (cf. Markman et al., 1993).
Next, participants were instructed to, “. . . think about
2.2 Procedure
how something different could have happened rather than
Participants were seated at computers running MediaLab
what actually happened.” Those assigned to the upward
software (Jarvis, 2004) and informed that the purpose of
counterfactual condition were then told, “Speci?cally,
the experiment was to understand “puzzle-solving.” After
think about how your performance on the anagrams might
signing consent forms, participants clicked on a computer
have turned out BETTER than it actually did,” whereas
mouse to begin, and the following instructions appeared
those assigned to the downward counterfactual condition
on the screen:
were told to “. . . think about how your performance on
In the experiment you will be solving anagrams. This
the anagrams might have turned out WORSE than it actu-
task involves unscrambling a series of letters to FORM
ally did.” Participants then provided their counterfactual
AS MANY WORDS AS POSSIBLE using ALL OF
thoughts in writing.
THE LETTERS in the series. For example, the let-
Simulation mode was then manipulated. The evalu-
ters “ALSET” can be unscrambled to form the words
ative mode instructions directed participants to “Close
“TALES”, “STALE”, and “STEAL”.
your eyes and think about your ACTUAL performance
You will be given two sets of 10 anagrams to solve.
on the anagrams COMPARED to how you MIGHT
Your performance on the second set of anagrams will de-
have performed BETTER (WORSE). Take a minute and
termine how much MONEY you will earn for participat-
VIVIDLY EVALUATE your performance in compari-
ing in the experiment. The ?rst set of 10 anagrams will
son to how you might have performed better (worse),”
serve as practice for the second set. Following comple-
whereas the re?ective mode instructions directed par-
tion of the ?rst set, you will receive FEEDBACK con-
ticipants to “Close your eyes and VIVIDLY imagine
cerning your PERFORMANCE on this ?rst set.
what might have been. Spend about a minute VIVIDLY
Each anagram may have no solution, one solution, or
IMAGINING how your performance on the anagrams
multiple solutions. You have as much time as you require
might have been BETTER (WORSE) — the imagined
for ?nding all of the solutions that you can.
performance you have been thinking about.” Participants
Participants then began solving the practice set of ana-
were then asked to describe these thoughts in writing.
grams.
Each anagram appeared in the center of the
At this point, participants were reminded that they had
screen, and participants were asked to type in their solu-
an opportunity to win money for their performance on
tions in the ?eld that appeared below it. Participants were
the second set of anagrams. Participants assigned to the
given the options of both skipping to the next anagram
promotion-framing condition were told that their goal
in the set and returning to previous anagrams in the set.
was to ?nd 90% or more of all the possible words, and
Three of the ten anagrams that appeared in the practice
that although they were assured of receiving $4 for par-

Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 2006
Counterfactual thinking
103
ticipating in the experiment, it was possible for them to
3 Results
earn an extra dollar. They would earn the extra dollar if
they found 90% or more of all the possible words, but
3.1 Manipulation Check
they would not receive the extra dollar if they failed to
?nd 90% or more of all the possible words.
Analyses were conducted to establish that the re?ection
Participants assigned to the prevention-framing condi-
and evaluation manipulations elicited relative tendencies
tion were told that their goal was to not miss more than
to engage in re?ective versus evaluative processing. As
10% of all the possible words, and that although the ex-
expected, a Direction X Mode ANOVA performed on the
perimenter was planning to pay them $5 for participating
mode scores revealed a main effect of Mode, F (1, 148)
in the experiment, it was possible for them to lose a dol-
= 19.02, p < .001, ?2 = .11, indicating that participants
lar. They would not lose a dollar if they missed 10% or
instructed to engage in re?ection demonstrated more re-
less of all the possible words, but they would lose a dollar
?ective processing (M = -.20, SD = .85) than did those
if they missed more than 10% of all the possible words.
who were instructed to engage in evaluation (M = +.39,
In order to ensure that participants understood the fram-
SD = .72).
ing instructions, an essay box appeared on the following
screen that asked them to describe the payoff contingen-
3.2 Persistence
cies to which they had just been exposed. One hundred
percent of the participants were able to accurately report
To examine our predictions regarding changes in persis-
the instructions they had just received.
tence from the ?rst to the second anagram task, a per-
Participants then proceeded to the experimental set of
sistence change score was computed by subtracting the
anagrams and were given as much time as they wished
total amount of time spent on the practice set (Set 1) of
to solve them. Once again, the computer kept track of
anagrams (M = 619.56 sec, SD = 297.44) from the total
how much time was spent generating solutions to each
amount of time spent on the experimental set (Set 2) of
anagram, and participants were provided with the options
anagrams (M = 706.60 sec, SD = 308.84). A Direction X
of both skipping anagrams and returning to previous ana-
Mode X Regulatory Focus ANOVA was then performed
grams. Following completion of the second set, all par-
on these change scores. To begin, the analysis revealed
ticipants were informed that they had either succeeded in
a main effect of Direction, F (1, 144) = 11.79, p = .001,
?nding 90% or more of all the possible solutions, or had
?2 = .08, indicating that participants who generated up-
succeeded in failing to miss more than 10% of all the pos-
ward counterfactuals showed a larger increase in persis-
sible solutions. At this point, participants were probed for
tence (M = +154.65 sec, SD = 349.53) than did those who
suspiciousness regarding any aspects of the experiment.
generated downward counterfactuals (M = -1.6 sec, SD =
Although several individuals indicated mild suspicion re-
246.61). Secondly, a signi?cant Direction X Mode inter-
garding the feedback they received following the practice
action was obtained, F (1, 144) = 3.72, p = .05, ?2 = .03,
set of anagrams, none reported completely doubting the
indicating that participants who were instructed to engage
feedback. Following the suspiciousness probe, partici-
in upward evaluation showed a larger increase in persis-
pants were debriefed, paid $5, and thanked.
tence (M = +225.67 sec, SD = 360.40) than did those
who were instructed to engage in upward re?ection (M
= +86.85 sec, SD = 317.94), F (1, 144) = 3.94, p = .05,
2.3 Coding
d = .41, whereas those who were instructed to engage in
downward re?ection showed a larger increase in persis-
Two independent judges, both of whom were blind to ex-
tence (M = +26.01 sec, SD = 274.79) than did those who
perimental condition, and one of whom was blind to the
were instructed to engage in downward evaluation (M =
experimental hypotheses, coded the counterfactuals gen-
-31.63 sec, SD = 246.61), although not signi?cantly, F <
erated by each participant for evidence of re?ective ver-
1, d = .22.
sus evaluative processing along a 3-point (-1 = re?ective
Importantly, the Direction X Mode interaction was
to +1 = evaluative) rating scale. An example of a counter-
quali?ed by a signi?cant Direction X Mode X Regulatory
factual that received a “-1” (re?ective) was, “I imagined
Focus interaction, F (1, 144) = 4.52, p = .035, ?2 = .03. To
the letters moving for me, instead of me going through
explore the nature of the 3-way interaction, the Direction
them all individually. Meaning, I imagined the word ap-
X Mode interaction was examined separately in the pro-
pearing for me,” and an example of a counterfactual that
motion and prevention conditions (see Figure 2). In the
received a “+1” (evaluative) was, “I could have performed
promotion condition there was a signi?cant main effect of
a lot better than I did if I applied more thought.” Inter-
Direction, F (1, 72) = 12.51, p = .001, ?2 = .15, indicat-
rater reliability on this measure was high (r = .84), and
ing that participants who generated upward counterfactu-
thus the two coder’s ratings were averaged.
als showed larger increases in persistence (M = +238.25

Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 2006
Counterfactual thinking
104
terfactual direction and processing mode, the results of
300
the present study provide additional insight into the moti-
vational consequences of counterfactual thinking. Con-
sistent with predictions, under promotion framing up-
200
ward counterfactual thinking in general elicited larger in-
creases in persistence than did downward counterfactual
Reflection
thinking in general, but under prevention framing upward
Evaluation
100
evaluation (comparing reality to a better reality) elicited
larger increases in persistence than did upward re?ection
(focusing on a better reality), whereas downward re?ec-
tion (focusing on a worse reality) elicited larger increases
Persistence change in sec.
0
in persistence than did downward evaluation (comparing
reality to a worse reality).
At the outset, speci?c hypotheses were offered with re-
?100
Upward
Downward
Upward
Downward
gard to the regulatory focus orientation that might provide
Promotion focus
Prevention focus
the best ?t with each type of counterfactual. First, we hy-
pothesized that upward re?ection would provide a better
Figure 2: Change in persistence from Set 1 to Set 2 as a
regulatory ?t with a promotion focus than with a preven-
function of direction, mode, and focus.
tion focus because it gives rise to the eager simulation
and development of approach-oriented plans (Spiegel et
al., 2004). Providing additional support for this hypothe-
sec, SD = 373.60) than did those who generated down-
sis, upward re?ection was found to elicit larger increases
ward counterfactuals (M = -26.69 sec, SD = 239.60). No
in persistence under promotion framing than under pre-
other effects were signi?cant (all ps > .29). In the pre-
vention framing, F (1, 144) = 5.51, p = .02, d = .70 (see
vention condition, on the other hand, whereas neither the
Figure 2).
Direction nor Mode main effects were signi?cant (all ps >
Secondly, we suggested that upward evaluation might
.26), the Direction X Mode interaction was signi?cant, F
provide a congruent regulatory ?t with both promotion
(1, 72) = 10.03, p = .002, ?2 = .12. As depicted in Figure
and prevention concerns because it focuses the individual
2, whereas participants who were instructed to engage in
simultaneously on the attainment of a desired end-state
upward evaluation showed larger increases in persistence
(i.e., the counterfactual outcome) and the prevention of
(M = +174.76 sec, SD = 194.58) than did participants
an undesired end-state (i.e., the actual outcome). In sup-
who were instructed to engage in upward re?ection (M =
port, upward evaluation was to shown to elicit equivalent
-8.76 sec, SD = 342.63), F (1, 72) = 5.20, p = .03, d =
increases in persistence under both promotion and pre-
.66, participants who were instructed to engage in down-
vention framing, F (1, 144) = 1.12, p = .29, d = .27.
ward re?ection showed larger increases in persistence (M
= +118.06 sec, SD = 234.28) than did participants who
Thirdly, we hypothesized that downward re?ection
were instructed to engage in downward evaluation (M =
should provide a good regulatory ?t with prevention fo-
-91.98 sec, SD = 237.32), F (1, 72) = 4.93, p = .03, d =
cus because it focuses the individual on the vigilant simu-
.89.1
lation and development of avoidance-related plans. Con-
sistent with this hypothesis, downward re?ection elicited
a larger increase in persistence under prevention framing
4 Discussion
than it did under promotion framing, F (1, 144) = 4.12, p
= .05, d = .48.
By examining the moderating role of promotion versus
prevention concerns on the interactive effects of coun-
Finally, downward evaluation was not expected to be
particularly motivating in either regulatory focus context
1 Given that persistence is hypothesized to be the mediator of any
because it focuses the individual on feeling better about
effects on performance, the analysis of performance is somewhat sec-
the present state of affairs. Consistent with this predic-
ondary and is therefore reported in a footnote. A performance change
score was computed by subtracting the total number of Set 1 anagrams
tion, the results indicated that under promotion fram-
solved correctly from the total number of Set 2 anagrams solved cor-
ing downward counterfactual thinking in general elicited
rectly. Overall, participants performed better on the second set of ana-
smaller increases in persistence than did upward counter-
grams than they did on the ?rst set of anagrams (M = +.84, SD = 3.59),
factual thinking in general, and under prevention fram-
t(151) = 2.87, p = .005. However, a Direction X Mode X Regulatory Fo-
cus ANOVA performed on these change scores revealed no signi?cant
ing downward re?ection elicited larger increases in per-
main effects or interactions (all ps > .16).
sistence than did downward evaluation.

Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 2006
Counterfactual thinking
105
4.1 Implications for Research on Decision-
als ?t with the student’s habitual orientation. Not only
Making and Choice
should the student be more likely to select promotion-
oriented strategies (e.g., studying over a longer period of
Higgins (2000, 2005) has suggested that people experi-
time, asking more questions in class) but, importantly, the
ence regulatory ?t when the manner of their engagement
student should also pursue such strategies with greater
in an activity sustains their goal orientation or interests
vigor because the experience of regulatory ?t enhances
regarding that activity. When there is ?t, people engage
engagement strength. On the other hand, a prevention-
more strongly in what they are doing and feel right about
oriented student would be better served by generating
it. Regulatory ?t theory has profound implications for re-
downward re?ective counterfactuals. In addition to en-
search on decision-making making and choice because it
hancing the likelihood of selecting prevention-oriented
provides insight into how individuals impute value. For
strategies (e.g., getting more sleep, socializing less), reg-
example, Higgins et al. (2003) measured participants’
ulatory ?t should also enhance the strength of the stu-
chronic regulatory focus orientation and were then told
dent’s engagement in such strategies. More generally, if
that they could choose between a coffee mug (determined
the manner in which an individual makes a decision sus-
to be more desirable in pre-testing) and a pen as a gift.
tains the decision-maker’s regulatory state, then it should
Furthermore, half of the participants were told to think
also increase the level of engagement or con?dence in
about what they would gain by choosing the mug or the
the decision-maker’s reaction toward a decision outcome.
pen (eager strategy), whereas the other half were told to
This suggests that decision-makers are more likely to act
think about what they would lose by choosing the mug or
upon useful inferences (Roese, 1997) derived from coun-
the pen (vigilant strategy). Participants were then asked
terfactuals under conditions of ?t than under conditions
either to assess the price of the chosen mug or to offer
of non-?t.
a price to buy it. According to the results, participants
assigned a price up to 40% higher for the same chosen
4.2 Coda
coffee mug when their choice strategy ?t their regulatory
orientation (promotion-eager; prevention-vigilant) than
This research was designed to provide empirical support
when it did not ?t (promotion-vigilant; prevention-eager).
for an emerging Re?ection and Evaluation Model (Mark-
The implication here is that when the experience of ?t
man & McMullen, 2003) that speci?es the motivational
strengthens evaluative reactions to choice options, the ?t
consequences of engaging in counterfactual thinking. In
experience should exert further effects on the likelihood
contrast to early functional approaches (e.g., Markman
that a particular option is chosen. Importantly, moreover,
et al., 1993; McMullen, Markman, & Gavanski, 1995;
regulatory ?t is not expected to directly affect the hedonic
Roese, 1997) that ascribed a preparative function to up-
experience of an object or an event. Rather, regulatory ?t
ward (but not downward) counterfactuals, and an affec-
is posited to affect an individual’s con?dence in his or her
tive enhancement function to downward (but not upward)
reaction to an object or event, and it is this reaction that
counterfactuals, the REM suggests that the emotional and
enhances evaluative responses.
motivational consequences of counterfactual thinking can
In the language of regulatory ?t theory, generating up-
best be understood when one considers how the direction
ward re?ective counterfactuals feels right in a promo-
of the counterfactual simulation interacts with the mode
tion context, generating downward re?ective counterfac-
in which the counterfactual simulation is processed. In
tuals feels right in a prevention context, and generat-
turn, the present work suggests that individuals’ strength
ing upward evaluative counterfactuals feels right in ei-
of engagement toward goal pursuit should be enhanced
ther a promotion or prevention context, independent of
to the extent that there is a ?t between the counterfactuals
the positive or negative affect that may be accrued from
they generate and their regulatory orientation.
generating the counterfactual (i.e., one’s hedonic experi-
ence of the event, as determined by emotional responses
to the counterfactual). This has important implications
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