Considering counterfactuals in counseling : reflections on reality
Counterfactual thoughts involve the consideration of how events might have progressed differently. These conditional statements include an antecedent (e.g., "If only I were less impulsive") and a consequent (e.g., "I would not have been unfaithful") (Markman, Gavanski, Sherman, & McMullen, 1993). The statements allow an alternate ending to what actually occurred and they often occur spontaneously. Such statements have many variations and may evoke negative (e.g., Regret that my relationship might be over) and positive (e.g., Hope that I am learning from my mistakes) reactions.This study investigated the relationship between other-generated counterfactual statements and the recipient's emotional response to these statements. Vignettes were developed by the author and distributed to a college student population. The content of the vignettes involved an individual was involved in a romantic infidelity and then entered group therapy to deal with this issue. Another group member makes a counterfactual statement to this individual referencing this incident. Direction of the counterfactual statement, severity of the negative event and its potential repeatability were all considered in assessing this relationship.A 2 x 2 x 2 factorial design was used. Direction of the counterfactual statement (i.e., upward, downward), event repeatability (repeatable, nonrepeatable) and severity of infidelity (low, high) all served as between-subject factors. The two dependent variables were the Positive Affect and Negative Affect subscales of the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS). Statistical analysis involved two analyses of variance (ANOVA), one for each dependent variable.No significant univariate interactions or main effects were found. In short, the results of the current study failed to support any of the author's hypotheses. The amounts of positive and negative affect that participants felt did not vary significantly as a function of counterfactual direction, severity of negative event or repeatability. It appears that the within group differences are larger than the between group differences. These results suggest that individuals' responses to other-generated counterfactual statements differ from their responses to self-generated counterfactual thoughts.