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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.



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.