Why we feel bad about ourselves and why it matters to think about it

Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College complete a Research Seminar, during which they write a popular science article about their second-year research internship. One of the runners-up to the one that won the Mindwise Prize was by Jannis Kreienkamp. Mindwise publishes a modified version of his article.

One of the most fundamental features that sets humans apart from other animals is our ability to imagine. Abstract constructs, thoughts about the future, empathy, morality and any metacognitive thought depend on our ability to construct or manipulate concepts and situations mentally. One particular form of mental manipulation is that of counterfactual thinking. Whenever we think about how an event might have been different and what the potential consequences would have been, we engage in counterfactual thinking.

“Counterfactuals are the all too familiar: “If only I had …” and “If only I hadn’t …” thoughts.”

Most of us share the intuition that there is a function to what we think and do (including these mental simulations). But while it seems painfully obvious that there is a benefit in empathy or morality, it is more difficult to pinpoint a specific reason for having imagined alternatives of past events. In 2008, Kai Epstude and Neal Roese proposed a fundamental function of counter-factual thoughts. They suggested that these thoughts actually have a monitoring and managing function. In short, they argue that these hypotheticals help us prepare for challenges in the future. Ruminating about the content of a situation has a relatively obvious preparative function but they also introduce more indirect influences linked to our emotions. Previous research did in fact find a link between counterfactuals and so-called negative self-conscious emotions. These rather specific emotions are shame, guilt and regret. They are the emotions that tell us what kind of a person we are. So the function of these emotions would then be to signal us the inadequacy of our actions and would motivate change. We will call them “i-motions” in this post, which is not a real word but it reminds us that these are emotions concerned with what I did wrong or why I am a bad person and that they move us to change.

“Until now we established two fundamental hypotheses. First, negative emotions about ourselves are motivating us to change. And second, thinking about how the past could have been different might boost these emotions.”

We will trust Epstude and Roese for the first hypothesis. There are, however, two fundamental problems with the connection between counterfactuals and i-motions. Firstly, how does one experimentally research the link between hypothetical thoughts and these extremely specific emotions? And secondly, what other elements should one consider when looking at these emotions? Both the methodological and the theoretical problem are of essential importance when one wants to understand why in the end we change. We will therefore look at both in more detail and then summarize why it is important to think about them.

Methodologically there are two key elements that one has to keep in mind in any experimental setting. One is to have control over what the participant thinks and the other is to create a situation that is not too artificial. One can easily imagine that it is fairly difficult to make all participants think of the same situation and still make it feel realistic.

“In the past, there have been two main approaches to researching counterfactual thoughts and both of them have focused on one of these methodological challenges respectively.”

A very controlled design usually used so-called vignettes, which are short, written stories or scripts that the participants had to read and where over they then produced counterfactual thoughts. It seems obvious that with this control over the situation one sacrifices the realism of the situation. In order to keep up the psychological realism, other researchers have asked participants to remember a specific situation in their past and to then formulate counterfactuals. In this case the researchers can expect that this will feel real for the participant but it is extremely hard to control the intensity and content of the memory.

“Unsatisfied with these major sacrifices we set out to find a method which balances the two approaches.”

We believe that a video clip might offer such a balance. A video provides, just like the vignette, a standardized and controlled situation, while it is still more sensible than a written story. We all know how effective the audio-visual input of a movie can be and how easy it is to bond and identify with the main character. So in sum, we believe that this new method can minimize the pitfalls of conventional research designs by balancing controllability and psychological realism.

Theoretically, we had two main objectives. First, showing that “If only” thoughts in fact heighten the experience of i-motions. And second, proposing a theoretical framework which explains the link by a cognitive process and looks at the influence of personality and situational factors. The first objective describes a relatively stable social psychological phenomenon called the emotion amplification hypothesis originally described by Daniel Kahneman and Dale Miller which was tested relatively straight forward. The model building part however was more complex in both the conceptual and the analytical components. There is a lot to say about the theory-building, the experimental set-up and the statistical analyses, none of which I will spend much time on at this point because there were some keystones which I think are immensely underrated in conventional textbooks preparing us for academia.

“First, the foundation of our success during this project was a supportive supervisor and a good team.”

I still remember how my descriptions of the project changed more frequently than the Dutch weather during the first few weeks and that this would have stayed a lot longer if we hadn’t shared the responsibility of understanding all aspects, proposing hypotheses, methods and analyses.

“And second, preparing the project is way underrated.”

I could probably write more on what I learned during our research about preparing than would be good for anyone but let me mention two things. (A) Make your hypothesis as specific and elaborate as possible. And this includes narrowing in on your analyses. You will struggle choosing the best statistic objectively if you are starting to think about it after your data collection. You will always find a justification to use this other statistic instead, so that you will be forced to ask yourself what kind of a researcher you want to be. And (B) during very specific preparations one might lose the bigger picture. A pilot study with just a few friends can detect so many confounds you otherwise have to adjust for and struggle with during your analysis (in our case a pretty tough ceiling in some items).

“Why does all of this matter?”

After our high-school graduation a good friend of mine became a carpenter and for the past four years I envied him for what he described as his work. When he gets home after a long day of work there is something very real that he achieved that day. There is a cupboard, a table or a roof top that he can look at and say this is what I made today. There is a physical thing in all its beauty of skill mastery and with all its imperfections to work on in the future. There is an immediate feedback and a use. I found this very difficult to say after a long day in the library or in lecture halls. And why should I invest so much time and effort into something that has no measurable progress, no satisfaction of mastery and no use to anyone else but myself. Although I am vastly exaggerating here and I always had little problem finding joy in my work, I want to use these last sentences to describe why my perspective changed during the last six months. It is difficult to summarize six months of a work you do for the first time and all the questions and challenges along the way. But it is also difficult to describe the great feeling of looking back and seeing that you have investigated some everyday life experience and made it more comprehensible and in the end created new knowledge. When I now remember my friend from high school I would like to tell him that I am also in the business of building. But I am not confined to being an architect, a supplier or a builder. I am planning my own house, I get supplied with bricks other people have tested before, construct my own bricks and in the end I am also the person who will make sure that the roof is tight.

“Thank you to all the people who shared this wonderful first research project with me.”



Epstude, K., & Roese, N. J. (2008). The functional theory of counterfactual thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12(2), 168–192.

Gross, J. J., & Levenson, R. W. (1995). Emotion elicitation using films. Cognition and Emotion, 9(1), 87-108.

Kahneman, D., & Miller, D. T. (1986). Norm theory: Comparing reality to its alternatives. Psychological Review, 93(2), 136-153.

Mandel, D. R. (2003). Counterfactuals, emotions, and context. Cognition and Emotion, 17(1), 139-159.

Mandel, D. R., & Dhami, M. K. (2005). ‘What I did’ versus ‘what I might have done’: Effect of factual versus counterfactual thinking on blame, guilt, and shame in prisoners. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41(6), 627-635.

Niedenthal, P. M. (2006). Self-evaluative Emotions. In Niedenthal, P. M., Krauth-Gruber, S., & Ric, F. (Ed.), Psychology of emotion: Interpersonal, experimental, and cognitive approaches (pp. 96–114). New York, NY, US: Psychology Press.

Roese, N. J. (1997). Counterfactual thinking. Psychological Bulletin, 121(1), 133-148.


NOTE: Image by Monument076, licenced under CC BY 2.0

After completing a voluntary service with United Nations refugees and working in human resources, Jannis started the Bachelor of Psychology program at the University of Groningen in 2013. His present research at the Heymans Institute is concerned with self-conscious emotions. Jannis is also interested in the fields of motivation and group dynamics.

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