February 16, 2010
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Should have, would have, could have … UC Berkeley research reveals the power of counterfactual reflection on life’s pivotal moments
UC Berkeley business management professors find counterfactual thinkers are more analytical in organizational settings
Almost everyone has said, “If only I had …” According to a new study, counterfactual thinking -- considering a ”turning point” moment in the past and alternate universes had it not occurred -- heightens one’s perception of the moment as significant, and even fated. Armed with a sense that life may not be arbitrary, counterfactual thinkers, the study suggests, are more motivated and analytical in organizational settings.
“What we found is that people indicate stronger commitment to an organization when they think counterfactually and it helps to define who they are on a professional level,” says Laura Kray, associate professor and Harold Furst Chair of Management Philosophy and Values, University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
The study was conducted by six scholars, including Kray’s colleague, Professor Philip Tetlock. “From What Might Have Been to What Must Have Been: Counterfactual Thinking Creates Meaning” is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (January 2010, Vol. 98 No. 1, 106-118). “For the first time, we demonstrate that counterfactual thoughts about one’s life have predictable consequences for how critical events and cherished relationships are understood," the authors write.
“Although you might think that counterfactually thinking is just going to lead me down a path of regret, it is actually very functional in terms of helping people establish relationships and make sense of cause and effect,” says Kray, “Counterfactual reflection about pivotal moments in the past helps people to weave a coherent life story.”
The team conducted experiments with student volunteers to discover how counterfactual thinking heightens the meaningfulness of key life experiences. The researchers asked one group of students a question in which the language prompted counterfactual thinking; the other group was asked to respond only factually.
The group prompted to think counterfactually demonstrated an increased perception that the turning point was fated and thereby meaningful. The factual group did not experience that feeling of significance.
“Getting people to think counterfactually helps people see relations better and construct meaning in their lives,” says Kray. In the context of business, Kray says subsequent research led by Hal Ersner-Hershfield, visiting assistant professor at Northwestern University, found having a sense of meaning fosters organizational commitment. In combination with Kray’s earlier work showing that people who think counterfactually are more analytical, counterfactual reflection is proving to be a very powerful tool in organizational settings.