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When the Unreal is More Likely Than the Real: Post Hoc Probability Judgements and Counterfactual Closeness

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Occasionally, people are called upon to estimate probabilities after an event has occurred. In hindsight, was this an outcome we could have expected? Could things easily have turned out differently? One strategy for performing post hoc probability judgements would be to mentally turn the clock back and reconstruct one's expectations before the event. But if asked about the probability of an alternative, counterfactual outcome, a simpler strategy is available, based on this outcome's perceived closeness to what actually happened. The article presents five studies exploring the relationship between counterfactual closeness and counterfactual probability. The first study indicates that post hoc probabilities typically refer to the counterfactual rather than the factual outcome. Studies 2-5 show that physical, temporal, or conceptual proximity play a decisive role for post hoc probability assessments of counterfactual events. When margins are narrow, the probabilities of, for instance, winning a match (when losing), and of losing (when actually winning) may even be rated higher than the corresponding probabilities of what really happened. Closeness is also more often referred to, and rated to be a better reason for believing there is a ''good chance" of the counterfactual rather than of the factual result occurring. Finally, the closeness of the alternative outcome in success and failure stories is shown to be significantly correlated to its rated probability.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: April 1, 1998


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