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Durham e-Theses
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Uncertainties in Counterfactuals: The Determinants and Emotional Consequences of Counterfactual Probability Judgments

ZHANG, QIYUAN (2012) Uncertainties in Counterfactuals: The Determinants and Emotional Consequences of Counterfactual Probability Judgments. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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Counterfactual representations refer to people’s imaginations about the alternative possibilities to the actual world (i.e., what might have been). The present thesis embraces the notion that the psychological impacts of those representations are dictated by the degree of certainty or uncertainty people assign to them, namely, their counterfactual probability judgments (i.e., “How likely could things have been different?”). The thesis reports six experiments investigating the determinants as well as the emotional consequences of counterfactual probability judgments. Experiments 1, 2 and 3 found that both people’s conditional and unconditional counterfactual probability judgments were heightened when a past outcome was physically or numerically proximate to its alternative. Experiments 4 and 5 found that people’s counterfactual probability judgments were not only affected by the static proximity cue but also by its dynamic variations. When outcome proximity was equal, the shrinking physical distance towards a counterfactual outcome heightened one’s subjective likelihood of that outcome, compared to if the distance stayed constant. Experiment 6 found that the effect of “shrinking distance” could manifest itself as an antecedent temporal order effect on people’s counterfactual probability judgments. That is, a counterfactual outcome was deemed more likely if the factual outcome was preceded by a decisive event that occurred latter in the causal sequence rather than earlier. These results are broadly consistent with the theory of the simulation heuristic which posits that subjective probabilities are estimated by assessing the ease with which a relevant scenario can be mentally constructed.
The emotional consequences of counterfactual probability judgments were investigated within the theoretical framework of the Reflective and Evaluative Model of Comparative Thinking (REM). The evidence from Experiments 2, 3, 4 and 5 suggests that the effect of counterfactual probability judgments on emotions are contingent on people’s temporal perspective – affective assimilation will be enhanced when future possibility is present (i.e., the outcome is indecisive or changeable) which encourages a reflective simulation while affective contrast will be enhanced when future possibility is absent (i.e., the outcome is decisive or unchangeable) which encourages an evaluative simulation. These findings suggest that the psychological impact of counterfactual thinking should be discussed in terms of a three-way interaction between its direction (upward or downward), probability (low or high), and simulation mode (reflection or evaluation).

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:Counterfactual, Probability, Heuristic, Judgment, Mental Simulation, Assimilation, Contrast, Emotion
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Science > Psychology, Department of
Thesis Date:2012
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:21 Feb 2012 10:48

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