Counterfactual Thinking: “What if..?” or “Had I Only..”
By Sapna Mehta Mangal Associate Professor, School of Hospitality Management, Kendall College at National Louis University | April 20, 2014
Counterfactual thinking is the human propensity to imagine possible alternatives to past life events that have already occurred (What if?), or even imagine alternatives to those that are contrary to what may have actually happened (Had I only). The term counterfactual thinking stems from social psychology and is applicable to many disciplines. Research has shown that counterfactual thinking can magnify customer satisfaction or even customer dissatisfaction levels. It is an area of consumer behavior researched by many marketers conferring that counterfactual thinking is a conduit to a range of human emotions like feeling regret, dejection, agitation, anger, and relief.
These emotions in the context of hotels can be linked to a guest's post purchase service evaluation as a result of a positive or negative service experience. This is often the state of being satisfied or dissatisfied with a service depending on the service's success or failure. In the following paragraphs the relationship between counterfactual thinking and post purchase behaviors will be discussed. It is critical to comprehend this notion and examine what action managers can undertake to minimize adverse counterfactual thinking triggered in a guest's mind. Finally, it is vital to examine other pertinent areas that tie into this cognitive notion, namely perceived value of services, Minimum Purchase Requirement in advertisement messaging, and retention levels. These can also be linked to a hotel guest's satisfaction level and counterfactual thinking.
Post Purchase Emotions
Counterfactual thinking is directional in nature and can be bucketed into two categories. They are downward and upward counterfactual thinking. Imagining a fact based outcome could be worse and judging the factual life event to be better often triggers downward counterfactual thinking. Let's take a real life hotel scenario to better explain this concept.
A hotel guest who finally checks in a lower suite category of a well-reputed property with the prior intention of trying to book an unavailable higher suite category may become instantly disappointed and regretful. The guest may however, evoke positive feelings of relief during the post purchase stage, thinking that the situation during the stay could have been worse, upon learning that the higher category suite had a major plumbing leak. It would now seem that not occupying the higher category suite was a small sacrifice to make. Hotel guests typically make themselves feel better after a service experience in this scenario. The post-purchase emotion of relief is often triggered by downward counterfactual thinking. This form of counterfactual thinking is more favorable to the guest service satisfaction level.
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