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

Sarah C. Atchley
Hendrix College


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.


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.

Counterfactual Regret          

Tykocinski and Pittman (1998) conducted research on counterfactual regret resulting in inaction inertia. They based their research on the premise that inaction inertia occurs when missing a good opportunity causes one to see a second alternative as less valuable, despite the fact that the second choice still holds some worth. To test this, the researchers designed a series of two experiments. In the first experiment, participants divided into four conditions were instructed to read a paragraph asking them to imagine that they needed a fitness center. In one condition, participants were told that the fitness center was close to their imagined houses (five minutes) but only limited membership was available and they had missed the deadline for joining. Participants then had to indicate if they would choose to join a fitness center farther away. In the second condition, participants read the same paragraph with one difference: the original fitness center was farther away (25 minutes), similar to the distance of the second fitness center. In the third condition, one sentence was added to the same paragraph in one of the two previous conditions. The sentence told participants to imagine that they passed these fitness centers on their way to and from work every day, serving as a constant reminder of missed opportunity. In the final control condition, no sentence was added to the paragraph. There was a significant effect regarding subsequent inaction. More participants who were told the fitness centers were farther away indicated that they would not join the second option fitness center compared to those who were told the fitness centers were close. Additionally, those in the longer-distance condition who had a constant reminder of their failure to join the first fitness center indicated that they were more likely to join the second fitness center compared to those who were in the shorter-distance condition (Tykocinski & Pittman, 1998).

In the second experiment, participants followed a similar procedure to Study 1; however, in this case, participants imagined that they could not rent an apartment because a friend was late to their meeting. In one condition, the apartment was closer to the university where each participant was taking classes, with the other condition being that the apartment was farther from the university. The other condition entailed another sentence added to the paragraph stating the unrented apartment was passed every day on the way to the university, with the final condition being no sentence added. Participants then reported the likelihood that they would rent the second option apartment. The results of this study mimicked the first and supported the authors’ hypothesis of inaction inertia (Tykocinski and Pittman, 1998).

According to these studies, one’s motivation can be greatly hindered by being previously let down. Participants were significantly less likely to follow up on a second option once they had missed the opportunity to have the first option. That is, participants were not motivated for future action. Although this is a mental way to protect oneself from regret, the inaction caused by this could result in many consequential missed opportunities, creating a cycle of “doing nothing” according to the authors (Tykocinski and Pittman, 1998).


One component of inaction inertia is the concept of self-handicapping, which is when an individual may point out a reason for failure that will serve as an excuse for later failure or inaction. McCrea (2008) proposed that positive effects, which occur when an individual consistently focuses on upward counterfactuals and ignores downward counterfactuals, cause a decrease in motivation for future improvement, thus becoming a self-handicap and lowering self-esteem. In his first experiment, the author predicted that motivation to protect the self could result in excuse-making for behavior generated from counterfactual thinking. Participants were instructed to think upward counterfactual thoughts after taking a midterm. In this particular case, lack of preparation for the midterm could be used as a self-handicap. Those who prepared little for the exam were predicted to think of more upward counterfactuals, and as a result of these upward counterfactuals self-esteem was boosted. This boost in self-esteem, the author speculated, would provide enough motivation for participants to put in just as little effort on future similar tasks as they did the first time. The author also speculated that those who carefully prepared for the midterm would think of more downward counterfactuals (McCrea, 2008).

Once participants learned their scores on the midterm, they were asked to think about those scores. Participants then rated how much they felt their scores related to the amount of effort put into preparation and completed a self-esteem inventory. Finally, participants rated how much effort they actually put in. As expected, participants who studied less had more upward counterfactual thoughts in comparison to those who studied harder. The findings suggest people can “mutate” memories. Those who actually did poorly on the exam had more upward counterfactual thoughts, as well. However, the amount of actual study effort was not significant in generating counterfactual thought (McCrea, 2008). The author argued that these upward counterfactuals help identify a common factor influencing failure, and self-handicapping is activated by acknowledging that.

In his second study, McCrea (2008) analyzed the concept that the availability of a self-handicap—that is, how readily the self-handicap comes to mind—can increase upward counterfactuals, therefore protecting self-esteem. Participants were first instructed to complete a self-esteem measure and were told that they would be taking a portion of an intelligence test. Participants were also told that the test results would be accurate and a lack of practice could result in a low score. Participants were then designated to the practice or no-practice condition. An instructor worked through some examples, and then participants answered the next two examples on their own. Participants in the practice condition got an extra ten minutes of practice before taking the intelligence test, as opposed to those in the non-practice condition. Practice participants were told that they got the first example right but the second wrong in their practice examples. This maneuver was intended to make the option of self-handicapping more available. Participants then took the intelligence test. After the test, all participants were told that they had essentially failed. Participants then recorded their counterfactual thoughts and once again took a self-esteem measure. Participants finally indicated how much effort they had put into the practice examples. The availability of the handicap resulted in more upward counterfactual thinking and raising self-esteem, consistent with the findings from Study 1.

The significant finding of the third study was that self-esteem was affected by counterfactual thinking. Self-esteem was elevated when people thought of upward counterfactuals, and the opposite was true for the downward-counterfactual participants (McCrea, 2008).

These results showed that an elevation in mood such as a boost in self-esteem can cause a decrease in motivation to stop and think about situations and strategies, which can have serious consequences, for example in gamblers. If a gambler rolls dice, loses, and engages in upward counterfactual thinking, an elevation in mood and a boost of self-esteem would, supposedly, boost confidence in oneself and one’s abilities. This could mean several more dice rolls for the gambling counterfactual thinker, most of them probably ending in lost money due to the lack of strategy or skill caused by a decrease in motivation (McCrea, 2008).

The final study involved motivation. The authors manipulated the experiment to target exclusively counterfactual roles in motivation. According to the authors, upward counterfactual thinking should indicate higher stress levels; however, there should be no effect on one’s motivation to improve. According to this logic, the opposite should be true of downward counterfactual thinking. The same design of Study 3—participants practiced for either a short or long time for a test in which performance would be recorded, and after being told they all failed, participants were to rate agreement with counterfactual statements—was used in this final experiment, except instead of telling participants that practice could affect scores they were told stress could affect scores. The results of this study indicate that participants answered more questions on the test correctly when they were in the control condition. Participants, knowing stress may be a factor in scoring, used this information as a self-handicap, confirming the author’s expectations. This is an example of inaction inertia in action. People are less motivated once they know that there is an obstacle in their way, and the counterfactual thinking of “What if stress will bring down my score no matter what I do?” is clearly a direct cause for this lack of motivation.

More specific than inaction inertia as a negative consequence of counterfactual thinking is the act of gambling, as previously mentioned.  Everyone experiences the tendency of making decisions to avoid regret, but this is especially common among gamblers. Gilbert, Morewedge, Risen, & Wilson (2004) conducted three studies which offer insight into this phenomenon. The authors predicted that marginal conditions—that is, the amount of loss—would influence experience in ways that lead to avoidance of self-blame. “The failure to realize just how easily future regrets will be minimized may be costly for decision makers, who often favor gambles in which bad outcomes are likely but unregrettable over gambles in which bad outcomes are unlikely but regrettable” (Gilbert et al., 2004, p. 349).

 In the first study by Gilbert et al. (2004), participants were instructed to play a fake game show during which they had to order objects according to price. Participants’ identified their top two arrangements that they felt were in the correct order, and then participants selected their top choice. If participants guessed correctly, they would receive an expensive t-shirt; but if they guessed incorrectly, they would receive an inexpensive decal. Once participants chose, they were randomly designated as an experiencer or forecaster with narrow or wide marginal conditions. Experiencers were told they had guessed incorrectly, and depending on what marginal condition they were in, they were told either that the ordering not selected was incorrect (wide-margin)—that is, the participant would not have won any prize—or that their second choice was the correct arrangement (narrow-margin). Experiencers then reported their emotions.  Forecasters were instructed to report how much regret they would feel if both of their choices were incorrect (wide-marginal condition) or how much regret they would feel if their second choice was correct (narrow-marginal condition). The forecasts of regret were measured against the reported feelings of disappointment because feeling regret implies self-blame. There was a significant effect for the marginal conditions and the experience and forecasting of regret. Forecasters anticipated more regret than they actually felt in the narrow-marginal condition but not the wide-marginal condition. There was a significant effect for disappointment in both conditions, illustrating that counterfactual experience of regret—self-blame—was felt more by the narrow-marginal participants (Gilbert et al., 2004).

In the Gilbert et al.’s (2004) second study, experiencers were participants selected at random on the subway. They were told that they had just missed their train by one minute (narrow-marginal condition) or five minutes (wide-marginal condition). Forecasters were recruited in the same manner and asked to rate how they would feel if they had missed their train by one minute or five. Results indicate that participants anticipated and demonstrated regret before disappointment. The marginal conditions had no influence on participant response.

The third study by Gilbert et al. (2004) mirrored the second study with two differences: all participants were designated in the narrow-marginal condition, and they were asked to finish a counterfactual statement. As predicted, forecasters made more counterfactual statements regarding self-blame than experiencers did. These findings suggest that in the moment, people generally attribute blame to someone or something else in the narrow-marginal condition. In an additional part to this study, participants were asked to indicate whether or not they felt responsible for missing the train. Participants indicated they would blame themselves, but the results of the actual experiment indicated otherwise (Gilbert et al., 2004).

The results of this experiment illustrate a common problem among gamblers. The rationale that the self is not to blame offers insight into how problems, such as gambling, arise. If a gambler sees his or her environment as the cause of not winning, the gambler may switch environments or simply roll again. For example, if a gambler is rolling dice, he or she might blame a bad roll on the tilt of the table or the vibration of the ground. These results have serious implications for those in situations similar to gambling. If no responsibility is given to the self, the same mistakes are likely to be repeated.

An experiment pertaining to gambling tested the effects of counterfactual thinking and the impairment of memory. Spellman and Mandel (1999) predicted that counterfactuals could change how people remember specific events. Their research centers on counterfactual conditionals, which are what the authors term the alternate possibilities of outcomes. When people obsess over what they could have done differently, they are physically aroused by a heightening of emotions upon understanding that a person’s fate might have been easily avoided or redirected. According to the authors, this phenomenon could result in a distortion of memory. The authors then reviewed empirical evidence that supports this theory.

In the first study (Wells & Gavanski, 1989, as cited in Spellman & Mandel, 1999) that the authors analyzed, participants read a vignette in which a woman went to dinner with her boss. Her boss ordered dinner for both of them, a dish containing wine to which the woman was allergic. The woman consequently died, and participants read that the boss contemplated ordering a dish either with or without wine. Participants were then asked to identify four ways how the night could have turned out differently and rate how much of the event was the boss’s fault. Participants changed the event and faulted the boss more in the condition where they were told the other dish did not contain wine. These findings suggest that counterfactual thinking is related to causality, and the more the counterfactual is available the more it appears to cause the event due to obsessive thinking (Spellman & Mandel, 1999).

The authors (Spellman & Mandel, 1999) concluded their article with an overview of current theories regarding counterfactual thinking and the distortion of memory. The Crediting Causality Model states that a person’s single judgment of causality may be independent of science’s causality. In other words, people identify the cause and effect in a single instance and compare that to situations in which the cause is not perceived. If the effect is also not present, the cause is inferred to be true. This raises serious consequences for people in general but specifically to gamblers. If counterfactual thinking alters conceptions of what actually happened (the cause), then one may repeat the same mistakes again and again (the effect).

More research has been conducted on the influence of counterfactual thinking on memory. Petrocelli and Crysel (2009) proposed that constantly thinking about repeated events could hinder the memory of the actual result, also known as the counterfactual inflation hypothesis. Participants played forty games of blackjack and were asked to list either evaluative counterfactuals or reflective counterfactuals after each loss. In the control condition, they listed nothing. Evaluative counterfactuals include thoughts focused on what actually happened and what could have happened, while reflective counterfactuals center specifically on what could have happened. Participants were also asked to rate their confidence for future blackjack playing. The authors focused primarily on reflective counterfactuals and expected participants to respond to these thoughts with more confidence in playing cards due to the confusion of reality with what might have been. This confusion was, the authors indicated, caused by recurrent exposure to these reflective counterfactual thoughts creating a familiarity of the counterfactual event, thus making it seem more real. This is what the authors refer to as the “counterfactual/memory-distortion link” (Petrocelli & Crysel, 2009).

The findings of this research (Petrocelli & Crysel, 2009) indicated that there is a significant relationship between repeated reflective counterfactual thoughts and confidence in gambling. Opposed to those in the evaluative counterfactual condition, participants in the reflective counterfactual condition reported more confidence in future playing. Reflective counterfactual participants also remembered winning more games than they actually did, providing support for the authors’ belief that reflective counterfactual thinking can lead to memory alterations.

Counteracting the Negative Results of Counterfactual Thinking

The studies mentioned throughout the text support the notion of counterfactual thinking as causality for inaction inertia. Although it is not valid to say that counterfactual thinking causes gambling, according to this research it certainly does not help the matter. This suggests that counterfactual thinking can have significant negative consequences for social decision-making. Fortunately, there are ways to improve these consequences. It is important to have a distracter; repeated obsessing over a counterfactual can impair memory, so one solution to this problem would be to find a distracter to target your cognition away from the counterfactual. It is also helpful to simply become aware of these issues; if one is conscious of inaction inertia, one is better prepared to fight it (Van Putten, Zeelenberg, & Van Dijk, 2009). Although our cognitive processes may steer us in the wrong direction, they exist primarily to benefit us, and there are ways to counteract the negatives. It is comforting to know this for future decision-making and action. As the previous summaries of literature indicated, counterfactual thinking leads to inaction inertia, self-handicapping, and, in some cases, gambling. Although there are many positive associations with counterfactual thinking, these issues are not to be ignored or dismissed because they can have serious consequences for future situations.


Gilbert, D. T., Morewedge, C. K., Risen, J. L., & Wilson, T. D. (2004). Looking forward to looking backwards: The misprediction of regret. Psychological Science, 15(5).

Kray, L., George, L., Liljenquist, K., Galinsky, A., Tetlock, P., & Roese, N. (2010). From what might have been to what must have been: Counterfactual thinking creates meaning.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(1), 106-118

McCrea, S. M. (2008). Self-handicapping, excuse making, and counterfactual thinking: Consequences for self-esteem and future motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(2), 274-292. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.95.2.274

Petrocelli, J. V., & Crysel, L. C. (2009). Counterfactual thinking and confidence in blackjack: A test of the counterfactual inflation hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(6), 1312-15. doi: 10.1015/j.jesp.2009.08.004

Spellman, B. A., & Mandel, D. R. (1999). When possibility informs reality: Counterfactual thinking as a cue to causality. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8(4).

Tykocinski, O. E., & Pittman, T.S. (1998). The consequences of doing nothing: Inaction inertia as avoidance of anticipated counterfactual regret. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(3), 607-16.

Van Putten, M., Zeelenberg, M., & Van Dijk, E. (2009). Dealing with missed opportunities: Action vs. state orientation moderates inaction inertia.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), 808-815. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.05.011

Wells, G. I., & Gavanski, I. (1989). Mental simulation of causality. Journals of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 161-169.


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