Phenomenology of counterfactual thinking is dampened in anxious individuals.
Counterfactual thinking (CFT), or simulating alternative versions of occurred events, is a common psychological strategy people use to process events in their lives. However, CFT is also a core component of ruminative thinking that contributes to psychopathology. Though prior studies have tried to distinguish adaptive from maladaptive CFT, our study provides a novel demonstration that identifies phenomenological differences across CFT in participants with varying levels of trait anxiety. Participants (N
= 96) identified negative, regretful memories from the past 5 years and created a better counterfactual alternative (upward CFT), a worse counterfactual alternative (downward CFT), or simply recalled each memory. Participants with high levels of trait anxiety used more negative language when describing their mental simulations, reported lower ratings of composition during upward CFT, and reported more difficulty in imagining the emotion they would have felt had negative events turned out to be better. Additionally, participants with high anxiety thought that upward CFT was less likely to occur relative to individuals with low anxiety. These results help to clarify how mental simulations of aversive life events are altered in anxiety and serve as a stepping stone to future research uncovering the mechanisms of ruminative thought patterns.
Parikh, N; LaBar, KS; De Brigard, F
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