Pursuing perfection or pursuing protection? Self-evaluation motives moderate the behavioral consequences of counterfactual thoughts


Sean McCrea, Department of Psychology, University of Wyoming, Dept. 3415, 1000 E. University Ave. Laramie, WY 82071 USA.

E-mail: smccrea@uwyo.edu


Counterfactual thoughts identifying how a past performance could have been better (e.g., “If only I had studied for the exam, I would have gotten an A!”) have been shown to increase effort and performance on future tasks. The present work examines whether current self-evaluation motives moderate this link between past and future behavior. In two studies, we demonstrate that the preparatory benefits of counterfactual thoughts are limited to situations in which individuals pursue a self-improvement motive. When individuals are instead motivated by self-protection concerns, counterfactuals can be used to excuse poor performance, undermining any desire to improve in the future. The behavioral consequences of counterfactual thoughts are therefore dependent upon active self-evaluation motives. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.