When presented with negative outcomes, people often engage in counterfactual thinking, imagining various ways that events might have been different. This appears to be a spontaneous behavior, with considerable adaptive value. Nevertheless, counterfactual thinking may also engender systematic biases in various judgment tasks, such as allocating blame for a mishap, or deciding on the appropriate compensation to a victim. Thus, counterfactuals sometimes require thought suppression or discounting, potentially resource-demanding tasks. In this study, participants made mock-jury decisions about control and counterfactual versions of simple stories. The judgments of two groups of participants, differing in their respective levels of working memory capacity, were compared. In addition, all participants held memory loads during various stages of the primary task. Lower-span individuals were especially susceptible to bias associated with the counterfactual manipulation, but only when holding memory loads during judgment. The results suggest that counterfactual thoughts arise automatically, and may later require effortful, capacity-demanding suppression.
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