Published On: 25/01/2003|Categories: 2003–2007, Vol.24 (1), Vol.24 (2003)|


Counterfactual thinking is the comparison of a factual situation to a simulated alternative one. When people think about how things could have been different, they tend to mentally undo the last occurrence in an independent sequence of antecedents to an outcome. We report two experiments that examined this phenomenon that has been called the temporal order effect. The first experiment, with 132 participants, examined the effect of varying the number of everyday life events on the temporal order effect. The results show that, in mundane situations, the effect occurs only when the outcome is preceded by a sufficient number of events. The second experiment, with 177 participants, examined a possible interaction of the temporal order effect with a different mutability effect – the tendency to change controllable events that are exceptional with regards to interpersonal norms for behaviour. The results show that the mutability of these exceptional events is influenced by their position in an independent temporal sequence. We discuss the results in terms of social norms.

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