Mental contrasting of counterfactual fantasies attenuates disappointment, regret, and resentment

Nora Rebekka Krott, Gabriele Oettingen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Negative emotions elicited by positive counterfactuals about an alternative past—“if only” reconstructions of negative life events—are functional in preparing people to act when opportunities to restore the alternative past will arise. If the counterfactual past is lost, because restorative opportunities are absent, letting go of the negative emotions should be the better solution, sheltering people from feelings of distress. In six experimental studies, the self-regulation strategy of mental contrasting (Oettingen, European Review of Social Psychology 23:1–63, 2012) attenuated the negative emotions elicited by positive fantasies about a lost counterfactual past, specifically, disappointment, regret and resentment. Mental contrasting (vs. relevant control conditions) led people to feel less disappointed when evaluating their lost counterfactual past compared with their current reality, indicating reduced commitment to the lost counterfactual past (Studies 1, 2, 3, and 4), and it attenuated post-decisional regret and resentment (Studies 5 and 6). These findings held when participants were induced to focus on lost counterfactual pasts for which they were responsible (Studies 4 and 5), for which they blamed another person (Study 6), or for which they deemed no one responsible (Studies 2 and 3). The findings are relevant for building interventions that help people to come to terms with their lost counterfactual past.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)17-36
Number of pages20
JournalMotivation and Emotion
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1 2018


  • Counterfactual emotions
  • Counterfactual thinking
  • Emotion regulation
  • Fantasies
  • Mental contrasting

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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