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What Should’ve, Could’ve, Would’ve Been: Affective, Motivational, and Behavioral Consequences of Counterfactual Thinking In Interpersonal Contexts


In a form of mental “time travel”, people often imagine the many ways the past might have been better, if only they had done something differently. This cognitive process, upward counterfactual thinking, commonly occurs after negative events, across a broad range of contexts. The present research examines the affective, motivational, and behavioral outcomes of counterfactual thinking in one particularly understudied context: conflict in close relationships. Study 1 participants recalled a close relationship conflict in which both they and the significant other played a role in the conflict, and then generated either self-focused upward counterfactual statements about the conflict, or self-focused factual statements about a neutral memory. Those who thought counterfactually about the conflict reported increased state guilt and, resultantly, were both more motivated and more likely to apologize to their relationship partners. Incorporating additional control conditions, Studies 2 and 3 provided evidence that these relationship-reparatory effects derive from counterfactual thinking as a broad, content-neutral pathway (as opposed to a content-specific pathway in which those thoughts must focus on the conflict in order for its consequences to help rectify that relationship). Finally, results from Study 4 illuminated potential differences between self-focused counterfactual thinking versus attributions of self-responsibility, particularly regarding the role of conflict resolution status and defensiveness. An internal meta-analysis across Studies 1 to 4 provides summative evidence that counterfactual thoughts about one’s role in a relationship conflict both induced more guilt and more attempts to apologize, relative to thinking factually about a neutral event.

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