Counterfactual thinking is our everyday adventure companion. Although we are not fully aware of its existence, it is almost always present. Every time we use terms like “almost” it is the counterfactual thinking that speaks, leading us to visualize alternate paths to the one that came true.
Expressions such as “If I had called you, we could have solved it”, “If I had paid more attention this would not have happened”, “If I had chosen that career instead of this I would feel better” refer to imagined events that contradict the facts. They are expression of a type of thinking that can be very useful to prevent future mistakes or condemn us to dissatisfaction and remorse for what could be, but was not.
What is counterfactual thinking?
Counterfactual thinking is a cognitive process that we resort to for imagining a different path from the one that happened, whether are important or more or less significant events in our lives. Through counterfactual thinking, we challenge reality to rethink what happened and imagine what society or our life would be like if everything had followed a different course.
This type of thinking is often triggered by a failure and fantasizes about what would have to have happened for that goal to be met. In fact, it often takes the form of uchronias, narratives that describe an alternate present that never happened. However, it can also be positive, as when we tell ourselves that “Everything could have been worse.”
As our reality is continually changing and the future is uncertain, it is normal for us to look for reference points to hold onto. Right now, as we try to make sense of what has happened to us and continues to happen, is taking place a battle in our minds that leads us to think about how things could have been. Then counterfactual thinking comes into play. Counterfactual thinking allows us to explore different scenarios through the question: “What would have happened if …?” and imagine alternate outcomes of that event.
The types of counterfactual thinking
Each type of counterfactual thinking has a different purpose and leads us down different paths, so it is important to understand which one we use most often.
Since counterfactual thinking involves a comparison between two situations, it can be classified according to the results of that comparison:
1. Ascending. This thinking occurs when we directly compare a negative real situation with a possibility that we consider better. An example is: “If I had prepared better for the job interview, they would have given me the position.” In this case, counterfactual thinking becomes a kind of guide for the future as it reveals what we should do when we find ourselves in a similar situation again.
2. Descending. This type of counterfactual thinking focuses on negative outcomes. Make a comparison of a positive real situation with a possibility that we consider worse. For example: “If I had been late for the job interview, they would not have hired me”. In this case, the imagined events are worse.
Counterfactual thinking also relies on our imagination, so we have:
1. Fantastic thinking. Fantastic counterfactual thinking taps our creativity and arbitrarily alters reality to imagine different outcomes. For example: “If I had wings, I would avoid the traffic jam.” Although not very frequent, since it does not have a practical use, it helps us to deal for a while with a situation that makes us uncomfortable and stressed by imagining a better situation, even though we know it is impossible.
2. Real thinking. Real counterfactual thinking does not alter the logic of the world, but includes small changes. For example: “If I had arrived 10 minutes earlier I would have caught the plane” or “If I had kept quiet I would have avoided the discussion.” These are alternative paths from which we usually draw a lesson for the future.
Depending on the alternative solution we devise, counterfactual thinking can also be divided into:
1. Additive thinking. In this case we add background to the past event, generally to improve the results. We can think, for example: “If I had bought the right tools, I would have finished sooner.”
2. Subtractive thinking. In this case we eliminate facts from the past event when we reconstruct another version of reality. For example, we can say to ourselves: “If I hadn’t had that last beer, I would have arrived on time”.
Both additive and subtractive counterfactual thinking facilitate the generation of new ideas and provide us with solutions for the future. They stimulate creative and remote associations as to find the causes of our problems or errors and solve them.
Finally, counterfactual thinking can also be classified according to the type of action:
1. Regret for action. When we experience regret for the action it implies that we wish we had not done something. We can think, for example: “I should have kept quiet”. This type of counterfactual thinking is more common in the short term, within days or weeks.
2. Regret for inaction. When we feel regret for inaction it means that we wish we had done something. It is curious that this trend is more common in the long term and appears after months or even years, referring to more distant events. For example: “I should have spent more time with my partner.”
Lights and shadows of counterfactual thinking
The functionality of counterfactual thinking depends on many factors, from the type of problem or event that concerns us to the degree to which it encourages the implementation of an appropriate action plan and, of course, the emotional state it generates.
In a general sense, the possibility of reviewing the consequences of our decisions or of past events and reconsidering them by recreating a different future is psychologically beneficial. In fact, counterfactual thinking is not a simple retrospective recreation of what might have happened, but it can become the first step in a constructive process by mentally simulating new possibilities that may be perfectly valid in the immediate future.
Counterfactual thinking can help optimize the decision-making process, helping us see things from a broader perspective using past experience. Therefore, it allows us to prevent errors, especially when we think of recurring events or those that can be repeated.
Even thoughts linked to negative events can help us mitigate an unpleasant reality and evade feelings of helplessness and frustration by inducing, albeit fleetingly, a positive emotional state when we simulate these good results.
Imagining that in an alternate reality we get the job or get on the plane, can reassure and motivate us to try harder in the future. Thinking that we could have done something else or made another decision can give rise to hope, fueling a new motivation to face the future with a more optimistic attitude.
Instead, counterfactual thinking can become dysfunctional when it promotes feelings of guilt about past events that we cannot modify or generates regret, anger, or frustration. In fact, keeping it long-term, going back over and over to the same facts, is not psychologically beneficial, but leads to obsession.
Certain events in the past, for example, may have had important consequences in our lives, but evoking them is not useful because they are lost opportunities and we can do nothing to remedy them, neither in the present nor in the future. Such is the case of extraordinary events that occur once in a lifetime and mark it, such as the choice of a career.
In fact, the contrast that this type of thinking usually produces generates or amplifies what are known as “counterfactual emotions”. The most common counterfactual emotions are often negative, such as frustration, guilt, regret, shame, outrage, grief, or even envy.
Obviously, experiencing those emotions by going back to the past can become a double-edged sword that ends up throwing us emotionally off balance. There is always the risk that counterfactual thinking turns into an incessant mental reproach that does not benefit us at all.
Use counterfactual thinking constructively
Counterfactual thinking can be an excellent learning tool or, conversely, it can ruin our lives. Optimistic people, for example, tend to have more ascending counterfactual thoughts because they help them avoid making the same mistakes again and plan better for the future. Although they also use descending counterfactual thinking to celebrate being saved from trouble.
Instead, pessimistic people may end up blaming themselves. They become victims of the double bind theory by presenting dead-end scenarios. They may think, for example: “If I was smarter they would have given me the job” or “If I had taken another path I would not have had the accident.”
Therefore, the key is to use counterfactual thinking in a positive way to try to understand where we were wrong or what we could have done better thinking of the future.
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