Phenomenology in autobiographical thinking: underlying features of prospection and retrospection

Aline Cordonnier*, Amanda J. Barnier, John Sutton

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    6 Citations (Scopus)


    Memories of personal events can generate complex subjective experiences with highsensory details, a clear visuospatial context, and deep emotions. Future events, on the other hand, are thought to be experienced less strongly and less clearly than remembered past events. In this experiment, participants either remembered past events, imagined future events, or planned future events. Each mental representation of the event was followed by an extensive phenomenological questionnaire. As a second step, we added a new level of comparison by asking participants to generate alternative versions of these events and answer the same phenomenological questionnaire to examine phenomenology in counterfactual thinking, prefactual thinking, and prefactual planning. We ran an exploratory factor analysis to reveal common underlying features to this variety of autobiographical thinking. We extracted four principal factors that explained 53% of the total variance: an Autonoesis factor, a Scene-Construction factor, a Visual-Perspective factor, and an Optimism-Bias factor. When comparing remembered, imagined and planned events using our factor scores, we found that memory and prospection did not generate significantly different subjective experiences. However, participants experienced the representation of counterfactual events less vividly and less clearly than memories, whereas they experienced prefactual imagined and prefactual planned events similarly to their original versions. In conclusion, our findings indicate that humans construct diverse forms of autobiographical events with similar underlying features, but with some differences in the phenomenology of retrospection and prospection, as reality constrains the way we perceive the past, but not so much the future.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)295-311
    Number of pages17
    JournalPsychology of Consciousness: Theory Research, and Practice
    Issue number3
    Early online date13 Aug 2018
    Publication statusPublished - 2018


    • prospection
    • future thinking
    • counterfactual thinking
    • autobiographical memory
    • phenomenology


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