The Darker Side of Counterfactual Thinking: An Analysis of Inaction Inertia and Gambling

Sarah C. Atchley, Hendrix College

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Abstract The current research is a literature review of inaction inertia, which is the resulting inaction due to certain cognitive processes, specifically counterfactual thinking or looking back over one’s life to determine how events could have turned out differently if a different course of action was taken. Previous research indicates that counterfactual thinking can have negative consequences such as inaction inertia, gambling, and self-handicapping.

Introduction Humans are unique in having the capacity to reflect upon the past. People learn from past mistakes, use life lessons to inspire others, and find happiness in reliving past successes and accomplishments. Reflection on the events and choices of one’s life can provide insight to prepare for future decisions, thus providing the basis for counterfactual thinking or thinking back on one’s decisions and choices throughout life and imagining how life would have turned out differently if other measures had been taken (Kray et al., 2010). This cognitive process entails taking a look at past events to determine how things might have gone better (an upward counterfactual) or worse (a downward counterfactual). Essentially, this thinking provides an evolutionary advantage for one’s behavioral choices in the future, such as preparation for future situations; however, counterfactual thinking can also have negative consequences (McCrea, 2008). Specifically, research has empirically demonstrated that inaction inertia, or the resulting inaction in order to avoid potential regret in decision-making and excessive gambling are two such consequences.

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