How people think “if only …” about reasons for actions

Thinking and Reasoning 13 (4):461 – 483 (2007)
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Abstract

When people think about how a situation might have turned out differently, they tend to imagine counterfactual alternatives to their actions. We report the results of three experiments which show that people imagine alternatives to actions differently when they know about a reason for the action. The first experiment ( n  = 36) compared reason - action sequences to cause - effect sequences. It showed that people do not imagine alternatives to reasons in the way they imagine alternatives to causes: they imagine an alternative to an action more than an effect, and to a cause more than a reason. The second experiment ( n  = 214) and the third experiment ( n  = 190) both show that different sorts of reasons have different sorts of effects on how people imagine alternatives to actions. People imagine an alternative to an action (the protagonist went to a ball) less often when they know the reason for the action was an obligation (he had to participate in fundraising) compared to when they know about a weaker reason (he wanted to meet a famous violinist) or no reason. The second experiment shows the effect for a social obligation and the third experiment replicates and extends it to a health obligation. We interpret the results in terms of the possibilities that people keep in mind about actions and their reasons.

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