When Possibility Informs Reality: Counterfactual Thinking as a Cue to Causality
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
People often engage in counterfactual thinking, that is, imagining alternatives to the real world and mentally playing out the consequences. Yet the counterfactuals people tend to imagine are a small subset of those that could possibly be imagined. There is some debate as to the relation between counterfactual thinking and causal beliefs. Some researchers argue that counter-factual thinking is the key to causal judgments; current research suggests, however, that the relation is rather complex. When people think about counterfactuals, they focus on ways to prevent bad or uncommon outcomes; when people think about causes, they focus on things that covary with outcomes. Counterfactual thinking may affect causality judgments by changing beliefs about the probabilities of possible alternatives to what actually happened, thereby changing beliefs as to whether a cause and effect actually covary. The way in which counterfactual thinking affects causal attributions may have practical consequences for mental health and the legal system.