Coping with disappointing outcomes: Retroactive pessimism and motivated inhibition of counterfactuals

Orit E. Tykocinski, Noa Steinberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


Having failed to achieve a desired goal, people may use retroactive pessimism as a defense mechanism, concluding that chances of success were not too good to begin with. To make this judgment, one must block counterfactual alternatives suggesting that success was, in fact, quite likely. Facing a bitter disappointment, the perceiver is highly motivated to inhibit upward counterfactuals, thus increasing the perceived inevitability of failure and finding solace in the acceptance of inescapable fate. Two experiments explored the hypothesized link between counterfactuals inhibition and retroactive pessimism. In the first experiment, it was found that participants experiencing grave disappointment, following a near miss, judged their chances of achieving their goal less favorably, compared to participants who had missed their goal by far. An analysis on participants' counterfactual judgments suggested that this effect was mediated by participants' perceptions of counterfactual events. The second experiment demonstrated that retroactive pessimism and counterfactual inhibition seem to be unique to situations in which the negative outcome resulted from uncontrollable rather than controllable events, thus corroborating the functional characterization of counterfactual thinking as well as the link between retroactive pessimism and disappointment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)551-558
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2005


  • Counterfactual thinking
  • Disappointment
  • Motivated inhibition
  • Regret
  • Retroactive pessimism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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