Counterfactual Thinking

Counterfactual Thinking Definition

Counterfactual thinking focus on how the past might have been, or the present could be, different. These thoughts are usually triggered by negative events that block one’s goals and desires. Counterfactual thoughts have a variety of effects on emotions, beliefs, and behavior, with regret being the most common resulting emotion.

Counterfactual means, literally, contrary to the facts. Sometimes counterfactuals revolve around how the present could be different (“I could be at the movies instead of studying for this exam”). More frequent, however, are counterfactual thoughts of what might have been, of what could have happened had some detail, or action, or outcome been different in the past. Whenever we say “if only” or “almost,” or use words like “could,” “would,” or “should,” we may be expressing a counterfactual thought (If only I were taller; I almost won that hand, etc.). Sometimes counterfactuals are used as an argument in a speech (“If Kennedy had decided to attack Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis, it would have ended in nuclear war”) or to speculate or evaluate (“What if the 9/11 terrorists had been stopped by security guards at the airport?”).

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Counterfactual Thinking Background and History

Counterfactual ThinkingPhilosophers throughout the 20th century have been fascinated by counterfactuals because of what they say about logic and the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge. Psychological research on counterfactuals began in the early 1980s with the realization that such thoughts are crucial to how people understand the past, predict the future, and come to understand the flow of events in their lives. Sometimes counterfactual thoughts are painful and even debilitating, such as when a person thinks, after a tragic accident, about how he or she should have told his or her best friend to wear a seat belt. In such cases, the counterfactual invites self-blame, which can make the anguish of a bad situation even worse. For this reason, researchers have been particularly interested in how counterfactual thinking is related to coping, depression, and anxiety.

Researchers distinguish between two main types of counterfactuals. Upward counterfactuals are thoughts as to how a situation might have turned out better. For example, a driver who causes a minor car accident might think: “If only I had swerved sooner, I could have avoided the accident.” In contrast, downward counterfactuals spell out the way a situation might have turned out worse; that is, the same driver could think: “If I had been driving faster, I might now be dead.” Upward counterfactuals seem to be the most common in everyday life.

Characteristics of Counterfactual Thinking

Three types of circumstances make counterfactual thinking likely. First, the most common trigger for counterfactual thoughts is negative emotion or a problematic situation. When people feel bad about a negative outcome, they often ruminate about how that outcome could have been avoided; thus, counterfactual thoughts are more common after defeats than victories, failures than successes, and penalties than rewards. Second, counterfactual thoughts are more likely after a “near miss” or an event that almost occurred, because when something almost happens, it seems to invite speculation about alternatives. For example, missing a plane by 2 minutes is likely to spark more thoughts on how one might have caught the plane as compared to missing a plane by a full two2 hours. Third, people also think in “If only… ” terms when they are surprised by an outcome, as when an unexpected result goes against what the person had assumed would happen, thereby drawing attention and causing reflection as to why the outcome occurred.

There are good reasons why negative feelings, near misses, and unexpected outcomes trigger counterfactuals, because in these situations, counterfactuals can be useful for guiding future behavior. When people feel bad about something, this often tells them the situation needs attention. If counterfactuals include information that makes it easier for people to tackle a problem, they might be better prepared in the future. For example, thinking “If only I had studied harder…”after a failed exam helps a person concentrate on studying so as to perform better on future exams. Similarly, focusing on near misses rather than far misses is likely to lead to success in the future because only a small change in behavior should be effective. Finally, by definition, unexpected outcomes indicate a person did not make an accurate prediction about a situation.

Counterfactual thinking appears in children at a very young age, almost as soon as they begin to speak. Developmental psychologists believe that because counterfactual thinking is so closely related to goals, children start to think about alternative courses of action as they become aware of their own wants and desires. Counterfactual thinking also seems to transcend culture. A controversy in the early 1980s centered on whether native Chinese speakers are able to reason counterfactually, given that their language lacks the specific word phrases that indicate “if only.” After some false conclusions were clarified with new research, psychologists had, by the late 1980s, concluded that the ability to imagine alternatives to the past is common to all people, regardless of language or upbringing.

Psychological Consequences of Counterfactual Thinking

Counterfactual thoughts spell out what people think caused an outcome. For example, the thought “If I had not eaten so many potato chips, I wouldn’t feel ill right now” implies eating too many potato chips caused the person to feel sick. Of course, these counterfactuals may be inaccurate (flu might be the real cause), yet counterfactuals that spring spontaneously to mind have the characteristic of feeling “right.” Many of the consequences of counterfactual thinking that have been studied—for example, a bias toward blaming victims for their own misfortune—can be traced to the inferences regarding causation that spring from counterfactuals.

Counterfactual thoughts may also change how positive or negative an obtained outcome feels. This is because people automatically compare what happened with what might have happened and note the discrepancy between the two. Whereas upward counterfactuals make actual outcomes feel worse (by contrast), downward counterfactuals tend to make outcomes seem more favorable. For example, after receiving a “B” on an exam, thoughts of how one might instead have gotten an “A” (i.e., an upward counterfactual) makes the “B” seem less satisfying. On the other hand, thoughts about how one might have gotten a “C” instead of the “B” (downward counterfactual) make the “B” seem a bit more satisfying. Regret is the specific emotional experience that results from an upward counterfactual that focuses on one’s own personal actions or decisions, and a fair amount of research has examined how regret is implicated in biased decision making. This work is part of an increasing awareness on the part of economists that emotional factors are essential to understanding consumer behavior.

Counterfactual thoughts can also increase how much control people think they have over events. When people believe an outcome would have been possible if only they had acted a certain way, events seem more under their personal control. A variety of research has pointed out how the feeling of being in control over life’s events brings health benefits, and so the effect of counterfactuals on perceived control can be counted as another positive aspect of these types of thoughts.

Because counterfactual thoughts influence emotions, storytellers often use counterfactuals to evoke certain feelings in their audience. “If only he had thought to grab the gold before he jumped!” The cinematic “close-call” is effective because it evokes counterfactual thinking and its emotional offshoots, such as relief or regret. As plot unfolds, forks in the road, surprising twists, and the overall recognition of multiple possibilities breathe life into the story. Plot devices that reveal palpable downward alternatives that nearly happened (nearly fell into a pit of snakes, almost was eaten by a shark) create dramatic tension and then relief. A burgeoning genre of popular fiction is called “alternate history,” and novels in this tradition tell an entire story inside a world that might have been (e.g., If the South had won the Civil War; If Nazi Germany had won World War II). Such stories reveal underappreciated aspects of reality that become more obvious through the juxtaposition with a vivid alternative to reality.

Counterfactual thinking is an essential component of effective social functioning. Geared mainly toward regulation of ongoing behavior, they also make us think more, inspiring further creative supposition. The capacity of counterfactual thinking to launch us into further reveries of thought is one of several reasons why counterfactual stories are so enchanting—they encourage our minds to roam where they otherwise would not have gone.


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