r01 - niedenthal 1994 - 'if only i weren't' versus 'if only i hadn't'. distinguishing shame and...

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Lectura Seminar 9


Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1994, Vol. 67, No. 4, 585-595

Copyright 1994 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.

'If Only I Weren't" Versus "If Only I Hadn't": Distinguishing Shame and Guilt in Counterfactual ThinkingPaula M. Niedenthal, June Price Tangney, and Igor GavanskiThe role of counterfactual thinking in 2 emotionsshame and guiltwas examined. In 1 series of studies, Ss read about situations evocative of shame and guilt or described personal experiences of guilt or shame. They then generated counterfactual alternatives to "undo" the distressing outcomes. Consistent with predictions derived from Tangney (1991), Ss tended to undo shame situations by altering qualities of the self and to undo guilt situations by altering actions. In a 2nd series of studies, Ss imagined themselves in a situation that could evoke either guilt or shame. Ss were then led to mutate the self or behavior to undo the situation. Mutation manipulations amplified shame and guilt such that the former Ss anticipated feeling greater shame, whereas the latter anticipated feeling greater guilt. The role of counterfactual thinking in specific emotions and in differentiating shameand guilt-prone personalities is discussed.

Individuals are naturally drawn to search for the causes of events, particularly unexpected events, that occur in the course of day-to-day life (Kelley, 1972; Weiner, 1985). In the process of this causal search, individuals often engage in counterfactual thinking; they reflect on how past events might have otherwise unfolded had some aspect of the situation or their behavior been different. The mental simulation of alternative outcomes appears to guide individuals' attributions about the causes of actual outcomes (Gavanski & Wells, 1989; Lipe, 1991; Roese & Olson, in press; Wells & Gavanski, 1989). Counterfactual thinking is also a determinant of individuals' affective reactions to events. Some past research has provided evidence to suggest that the consideration of near outcomes events that almost happened, but did notcan influence satisfaction with an actual outcome (Johnson, 1986; Kahneman & Miller, 1986; Markman, Gavanski, Sherman, & McMullen, 1993; Roese, 1994). In this view, counterfactuals are alternatives against which reality is compared. Thus, a person might be quite satisfied with having won a small prize, but unsatisfied if she perceives herself as having just missed winning a much larger prize. Other work has linked counterfactual thinking toPaula M. Niedenthal and Igor Gavanski, Department of Psychology, Indiana University; June Price Tangney, Department of Psychology, George Mason University. This research was supported by Grant MH44811 -01A1 from the National Institute of Mental Health and Grants BNS-8919755 and DBS291019 from the National Science Foundation to Paula M. Niedenthal and Grant RR07031-27 from the Biomedical Research Support Grant Program to Igor Gavanski. We are grateful to Denise Beike, Russell Fazio, Tom Gilovich, Jamin Halberstadt, Jim Sherman, and Carolin Showers for their helpful comments on a draft of this article and to Progna Choudhury, Chukwudube Egbuniwe, Darcie Dimitroff, Kelly Mann, Marc Setterlund, and Priya Singh for their competent technical assistance. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Paula M. Niedenthal, Department of Psychology, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana 47405, or to June Price Tangney, Department of Psychology, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia 22030. 585

the intensity of an affective reaction to an outcome such that the ease of imagining an alternative to reality is positively related to the intensity of the reaction to an actual outcome (Gleicher et al., 1990; Kahneman &Tversky, 1982;Landman, 1987; Roese, 1994). In this research we extend the idea that counterfactual thinking mediates affect and propose that, through its role in assessments of causation, counterfactual thinking helps to shape the specific emotions an individual experiences in reaction to a situation. Of interest are two emotions that have the same (negative) valence, but different phenomenologies: shame and guilt. Although rarely mentioned by students of counterfactual thinking, shame and guilt are, in fact, noted by clinicians to be associated with obsessive mental undoing of a past emotional situation. Research by Tangney (1989a, 1992) suggested to us that the two emotions involve different types of counterfactual thinking and that the counterfactual alternatives that people consider in distressing situations may serve to produce or at least amplify those specific feelings. Next, we discuss the processes by which such effects may occur. Counterfactual Thinking and Causal Attribution Consistent with the ideas of Kahneman and Miller (1986) and Einhorn and Hogarth (1986), Wells and Gavanski (1989) reported empirical evidence demonstrating that judgments of causation are guided by a comparison between reality and knowledge of, or belief about, what might have been (counterfactual alternatives). The research was based on the assumptions that an event will be judged as causal of an outcome to the extent that it is mutable (i.e., the event can be psychologically altered), and the mental mutation of the event to a different value can logically change or undo the outcome. In two experiments, Wells and Gavanski (1989) manipulated the salient ("default") counterfactual alternatives to events resulting in negative outcomes. The counterfactual alternatives either did or did not alter the actual outcomes. For instance, in Experiment 1, subjects read a story in which a woman named



Karen is taken out to dinner by her boss. The boss considers ordering two different entrees for Karen, ultimately choosing in favor of a dish containing wine. Unbeknownst to the boss, Karen has an allergy to wine, and she dies from an allergic reaction to the meal. In one version of the story, one of the two dishes that the boss considers ordering for Karen does not contain wine (the one-wine version). In another version, both of the entrees under consideration contain wine (the two-wine version). Thus, in the one-wine version the most available alternative event would have resulted in a different, and better, outcome (Karen living), whereas in the two-wine version, the available counterfactual alternative would have resulted in the same outcome (Karen dying). After reading one of the two versions of the scenario, subjects wrote counterfactual statements to "undo" Karen's death and listed the causes of Karen's death. Compared with subjects who read the two-wine scenario, subjects who read the one-wine scenario were more likely to mutate the boss's choice of entrees in mentally undoing Karen's death and to blame the boss for the death. Subjects who read the two-wine scenario mutated other factors such as Karen's choosing to eat the dish and blamed other agents such as Karen's behavior or her allergies. This result nicely illustrates the role of counterfactual alternatives in causal attribution: When the most salient counterfactual (default) alternative resulted in Karen living (in the one-wine scenario), subjects found the boss responsible for Karen's death. When the most salient alternative still produced Karen's death, the boss's behavior seemed less causal. As Wells and Gavanski (1989) pointed out, this result cannot be easily explained by traditional attribution theories in which only the features of the actual event are evaluated in judgments of causality (Lipe, 1991). Causal Attribution and Emotion Cognitive appraisal theories of emotion hold that specific emotions are shaped by individuals' interpretations of evocative situations (e.g., Arnold, 1960; Fridja, Kuipers, & ter Schure, 1989;Roseman, 1984; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985;Scherer, 1988; Weiner, 1985). Empirical research in this area has focused primarily on identifying the appraisal dimensions that account for the greatest variance in emotional experience. Specific emotions are thought to correspond to distinct profiles of values on the appraisal dimensions. Although the critical appraisal dimensions vary slightly in name and number from theory to theory, nearly all of the major empirical undertakings have revealed that causal attribution dimensions play a prominent role in shaping affective reactions. For instance, dimensions such as responsibility (i.e., the extent to which self, other, and environment are responsible for instigating the situation) and control (i.e., the extent to which the self, other, and environment influence the course and outcome of the situation) characterize thefindingsof several studies. In Weiner's (1985; Weiner & Graham, 1984) view, the extent to which an outcome is attributed to internal-external, stable-unstable, and controllable-uncontrollable factors allfigureimportantly into the causal attribution and, consequently, the emotional reaction to the outcome. Cognitive appraisal theories of emotion thus predict that the

same outcomes can evoke very different emotional reactions depending on an individual's beliefs about the causes of the outcome. There exists good support for this idea (e.g., Smith & Ellsworth, 1987; Weiner, 1980). For instance, in a study by Weiner (1980), individuals ("lenders") responded with anger to a request by another person ("borrower") to borrow their class notes when the need for the notes arose because the borrower went to the beach rather than to class on a particular day. On the other hand, lenders responded with pity to the same request when it arose because the borrower suffered from an eye problem. The present work shares with the appraisal theories the assumption that attributions of causes of positive and negative outcomes can influence individuals' specific emotional reactions to those outco