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Heuristics and Biases 1E- Norms and Counterfactuals


20. Norm Theory: Comparing Reality to its Alternatives

Counterfactual thinking is most likely to be stimulated in rare events, where the unlikely event is compared to a norm. The close the event is to the norm (like missing a flight by 5 minutes), the more regret occurs.

Counterfactuals regarding effects are more likely to be generated than causes. One is “big for her age” or “small for her age”instead of “young for her size.” In this case, the age causes the size, and it is the size (the effect) that has the alternative generated for it.

What norms are used depend much on the context, and may by very ambiguous when generating alternatives. “Why did Nol trip?” could be seen as asking why did I trip instead of someone else, or why did I trip instead of walking smoothly.

The central idea of the present treatment is that norms are computed after the event rather than in advance. We sketch a supplement to the generally accepted idea that events in the stream of experience are interpreted and evaluated by consulting precomputed schemas and frames of reference. The view developed here is that each stimulus selectively recruits its own alternatives (Garner, 1962, 1970) and is interpreted in a rich context of remembered and constructed representations of what it could have been, might have been, or should have been (7909).

21. Counterfactual Thought, Regret, and Superstition: How To Avoid Kicking Yourself

In cases where mutable factors account for negative outcomes, superstitions tend to arise, e.g. matadors switching bulls is seen as bad luck. This superstition may arise for two main reasons. First, there maybe a memory bias in such cases. If someone switches bulls, and dies, then this rare event will be very salient in people’s minds and the salience may increase the expected likelihood. Second, people may not see the superstition creating event as more likely, but instead foresee large amounts of regret if things turn out bad, avoiding the action, even if the negative outcome is not made more likely by the action.

Two central claims guided our quest. The first is that the counterfactual thoughts evoked by an event sequence affect the availability of that sequence in memory. The more powerfully an event sequence evokes thoughts of what might have been, the more available in memory the sequence is, and as a result, the more common the sequence seems. The second central claim is that the postcomputed thoughts and images that a negative event sequence brings to mind can be precomputed (8606).

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