New Paper by Kairos Scientist Examines Cross-Cultural Differences in Counterfactual (“What If?”) Thinking

Kairos Senior Research Scientist Dr. Amy Summerville has a new publication in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology about the intersection of cultural beliefs about fate and control with thoughts about “what might have been,” known as counterfactual thoughts. The paper, a collaboration with Dr. Angela Maitner of the American University of Sharjah, examined White American college students in the United States and Arab college students in the United Arab Emirates.

Previous research on Western populations has found that White westerners often think about how negative outcomes could have turned out better, particularly if the outcome occurred because of an unusual situation like having an accident while trying a new route for a daily commute. The new studies in this paper found that Arabs in the UAE agree with such upward counterfactual thoughts less than White Americans. Moreover, this difference is greater for significant negative events (an accident that results in a hospitalization) than minor hassles (an accident that breaks a headlight and makes the driver late to work). However, this difference does not occur for spontaneous thoughts or reports of emotions, suggesting that Arabs have access to these thoughts but may deliberately deny or suppress them. These cultural differences in counterfactual thought are tied to different beliefs about the origin of control, with Arabs reporting greater beliefs that events divinely controlled or fated than White Americans.

This work adds to our collective knowledge of how cultural forces shape cognition and emotion in the under-studied context of Arab culture. The paper is available as a preprint here and on the publisher’s website.

Dr. Summerville is also leading Kairos’s efforts on the DARPA Habitus program, which similarly seeks to understand important cultural differences in cognition. To learn more about Kairos’s research on counterfactual reasoning, see this article about our role on the IARPA FOCUS program.

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