More careful ≠ less carless: The comparative nature of counterfactual thoughts alters judgments of their impact
Karl-Andrew Woltin (Professeur, Université Catholique de Louvain)
A more-less asymmetry has been demonstrated in responses to claims about differences: People evaluate more positively, consider more likely true, and agree more with claims making more-than rather than less-than comparisons, presumably because they are more fluent (Hoorens & Bruckmüller, 2015). At the same time, counterfactual thoughts (CFTs) inherently imply a comparison, namely of a given reality to an alternative state. Consequently, we examined the impact of CFTs differing in comparative nature – both on people formulating them, as well as on their judgments of others.
In a first set of four experiments participants judged their self- and other-focused upward CFTs (about how outcomes could have been better) more impactful (i.e., plausible, persuasive, likely to change future behavior and emotions) when they entailed ‘more-than’ rather than ‘less-than’ comparisons; self-reported ease of thought generation and (dis)fluency gauged by difficulty in thought generation were similarly affected (Exp. 1, N=118; Exp. 2, N=290). This reversed for downward CFTs (about how outcomes could have been worse), with ‘less-than’ CFTs being judged more impactful and easier to generate (Exp. 3, N=210). Further attesting to the role of ease, when spontaneously generating comparative CFTs, participants correctly provided more ‘more than’ upward CFTs, but more ‘less than’ downward CFTs (preregistered Exp. 4, N=244). These latter findings delineate one of the to date few known conditions for a reversal of the more-less asymmetry.
A second set of studies demonstrated consequences in the context of victim and perpetrator blame. ‘More than’ (vs. ‘less than’) CFTs participants generated about how victims could have acted differently turned out to be more impactful, with participants’ deeming them more convincing, and victims more responsible and blameworthy. This held regardless of whether protagonists engaged in unusual or usual behavior prior to becoming a victim (Exp 5, N=159; Exp 6, N=399; preregistered Exp. 7, N=400). Moreover, self-reported ease of thought generation and (dis)fluency gauged by difficulty in thought generation again were similarly affected. A final study (preregistered Exp. 8, N=500) extended these findings to perpetrators and demonstrated them holding regardless of whether the outcome (here: a patient dying because of a physician overlooking lab results) was ultimately mutable or immutable.
Overall the findings suggest that especially ‘more than’ CFTs following negative events, and ‘less than’ CFTs following positive events, are likely to have an important impact on people; and that ‘more than’ CFTs are more impactful in the context of considerations about victims and perpetrators. They provide further support for a correspondence principle in people’s mental connection of cause and effect and for the simulation heuristic.
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