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Counterfactual thinking in the wake of trauma Davis, Christopher G.


Counterfactuals generated by people who have experienced traumatic life events were examined to elucidate their significance for the coping process. In Study 1, 93 respondents were interviewed 4-7 years after the loss of their spouse or child in a motor vehicle accident. In Study 2, 124 respondents were interviewed 3 weeks and 18 months following the death of their child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Across these two studies it was found that (a) counterfactuals that undid the traumatic event were commonly reported; (b) the focus of counterfactuals was typically on one's own (in)actions, rather than on the behavior of others; (c) the more freguently respondents were undoing the event, the more distress they reported; and (d) this relation held even after controlling for more general ruminations. In Study 3, 106 respondents were interviewed one week following their spinal cord injury. In this study, self-implicating counterfactuals were shown to predict ascriptions of self-blame, controlling for causal attributions and foreseeability estimates. Taken together, these field data suggest that counterfactuals play an important role in how people cope with traumatic life events. Possible roles that these counterfactual thoughts might play are discussed.

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