“If I had only…” we fretfully ponder over the path we did not take. These musings are called counterfactual thinking in psychology. Counterfactual thinking theorizes that how the consequences of behaviors we could have (or should have) done in the past would have created a much better life in the present.
We pine over the things we have not done when our current life disappoints. Dredging up the unchangeable past through counterfactual thinking, we ruminate over the could-have-beens, bogging us down, overwhelming our minds with sorrow, and pulling us into those unforgiving emotional black holes. Instead of working through the problems of the present, where we have influence, we wallow in the past, where we have none.
What is Counterfactual Thinking?
Counterfactual’s literal meaning is counter to the facts. In counterfactual thinking, we depart from the known facts, create a new counterfactual supposition, and then, form a more desirable end state.
Examples of Counterfactual Thinking
- If I would have married Sally, instead of Jane, I wouldn’t be having all these marital problems now.
- If I would have become an accountant, instead of a police officer, my life would have played out much better.
The problem with these over-generalized solutions to present problems is they provide no wisdom for present action. They just wallow in the could-have-beens.
Reminiscing thoughts over the great opportunities of the past are not factual. Typically, ignoring general fundamentals of logic and probabilities. When we idealize pasts, aggrandizing the could-have-beens, we ignore all the complexities of that the alternative certainly would have included.
Sally, perhaps, we just didn’t know all that well. To postulate that marriage to her would have been better than our current marriage to Jane is just magical thinking. A relationship with Sally likely would have had its own bag of troubles.
Comparing present realities with imagined, counterfactual, and idealized alternatives is a recipe for sorrow. The present will always lose this battle.
Upward vs. Downward Counterfactuals
Not all counterfactuals are equal. They can have a different focus. Some counterfactuals have an upward comparative and others a downward comparative.
Neither downward or upward counterfactuals are inherently bad, nor is one better than the other. They both can inspire helpful and harmful thoughts, depending on the proximity of the event, the logic of the evaluative speculation, and the goal of the ultimate goal of the counterfactual.
Counterfactual Thinking and Mental Time Travel
Counterfactual thinking is similar to other episodic time mental time travel practices. We travel back in time, remembering the past (episodic memory); we travel forward into the future and imagine future possibilities (episodic future thinking).
”Whereas episodic memory is about what actually happened in the past, episodic future thinking is not constrained by what will actually occur, because we can imagine a wide range of future possibilities (De Brigard & Parikh, 2019, p. 60). Counterfactual thinking is a blending of the two. We travel back in time and imagine how altering a choice would change the present. Some refer to the practice as episodic counterfactual thinking.
MRI studies suggest that similar brain areas are activated for each of these mind travel practices (p. 60). The same network of brain areas is activated during theory of mind tasks. Researchers propose that “this brain network has a more general function of supporting projection of one self in another temporal or contextual situation (including in another person), or of scene construction (Van Hoeck, Van Overwalle, & Vandekerckhove, 2016, p.225).
Explaining Our Current Sorrows
T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “while our mind is bouncing around the ill-feeling experience, exploring every nook and cranny, hoping to discover a resolution, we experience heightened stress” (2022). It is like a self-feeding cycle, we revisit the past when life is not going well and our ruminations fuel further dissatisfaction. Our current circumstances are not ideal, generating negative affect, and we seek answers. We ruminate—it is what we do. We seek causes for our misfortune.
Dr. Robert DeMoss, former Clinical Director of a mental health center in New Mexico, explains, “human consciousness seems to compel us to weave the events of our lives together into a story that has continuity” (1999). This coherent narrative is needs updating when life disappoints. We need to find reasons for the sorrow. So, we drift back to the past and update our autobiographical memories by manipulating the past. We are meaning making machines.
However, in our search for answers, we over-simplify. As DeMoss explains, “When people are asked to attribute a cause for a negative event, when equally plausible, yet competing reasons are available, they select the most “blameworthy” action as the main reason (even when each contributing factor may have been equally responsible)” (1999).
“For all the sad words of tongue or pen, the sadist are these: ‘It might have been!'”~John Greenleaf Whittier (1898)
Counterfactual Thinking and Emotional Arousal
Neil J. Roese wrote that “research has confirmed that negative emotions may result from counterfactual thinking” (1997, p. 133). We’ll comeback to Roese’s intriguing research on counterfactual thinking.
Our thoughts, especially those ones that stick, pulling us into heart wrenching ruminations over the life we have missed hurt. Happiness is often “negatively associated with excessive, negative, self-focused processing; i.e. rumination” (Luo, et al. 2016).
Murphy wrote that “we live in the fuzzy muck of uncertainty. Science, politics, medical predictions, and nature creep in the dark corners of the unknowable. Our ‘knowledge’ tentatively rests on unproven theories and reasonable guesses… As we develop our ability to live with uncertainty, we more effectively adapt to the dynamic world of change—the world we call home” (Murphy, 2021).
However, going back to Roese’s research, “the net effect of counterfactual thinking is beneficial” (1997, p. 133). Many researchers suggest that “counterfactual thinking is thought to play an important role in everyday cognition by informing and regulating our future behavior” (Mullally & Maguire, 2014, p. 1261).
Counterfactuals as Defense Mechanisms
Negative affects inspire thought. We ruminate. Sometimes seeking helpful solutions. Other times seeking a target to blame. The underlying goal of active thoughts as a response to negative affects is to soothe the discomfort. Basically, a process explained by Sigmund Freud’s pleasure principle or the psychological concept of homeostasis.
Negative affects trigger a defensive reaction to resolve the discomforting arousal. Defense mechanisms in all their glorious power and ugly maladaptive deceptions intervene, calming the negative affects while helping or hurting our futures in the process.
Downward counterfactuals paint the present in brighter colors considering worse possibilities, soothing our feelings. Upward counterfactuals tend to evoke further unpleasantness but may also “offer useful prescriptions for efficacious future behavior” (p. 134).
Beneficial and Functional Counterfactual Thinking
We all are familiar with dysfunctional ruminations. We allow thoughts to churn, ignite paralyzing guilt, or blaming anger at external perceived causes, yet draw no directional wisdom from the thoughts to better our lives in the future. This is dysfunctional. We feel bad but are not motivated to change.
Functional counterfactuals may stimulate some discomforting thoughts but the overall impact of the counterfactuals motivate helpful action.
Both upward and downward counterfactuals may have a functional purpose. Roese explains that upward comparisons often “yield (a) negative affect but also positive motivational and informational affects.” He adds that “downward counterfactual comparisons with a hypothetical worse state of affairs, may evoke positive affect via a contrast effect” (1997, p. 134).
Counterfactual Thinking and Insight
Counterfactual thinking provides valuable insight when two primary conditions are met. The first is proximity of the counterfactual alternatives to the consequence. The further in the past we travel to find blame, the less relevance the counterfactual has to the present, providing little functional wisdom for the improvement of choice in the future.
For example, practicing counterfactual thinking for a choice made three days ago, may provide legitimate information to improve choices in the future. However, revisiting the ancient past, such as who I married ten years ago, gives little or no helpful information. The thoughts are just escapisms from problems in the moment.
The second necessary component is whether the counterfactuals are reality based. When we entertain thoughts of alternatives that are ridiculous or based on information not available at the time (hindsight bias), our counterfactual thinking is unhelpful. We would all be investment geniuses if we would could buy and sell stock from the wisdom gained only after a stock grows or tanks. However, unless we take time to explore the underlying reasons for the growth or loss, our counterfactual thinking is just wishful thoughts of a fool.
A Few Final Thoughts
So, go ahead, counterfactual think. Of course make sure it is functional and not the wallowing in an unchangeable past, where we envision idealistic deviations that would change everything. These magical types of thought do little but move us in back in time to a place where we can do nothing but dream of the fork in the road that was not chosen, and the paradisical reward if we would have just gone left instead of right.
De Brigard, F., & Parikh, N. (2019). Episodic Counterfactual Thinking. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28(1), 59-66.
DeMoss, Robert T. (1999). Brain Waves Through Time. Basic Books.
Luo, Y., Kong, F., Qi, S., You, X., & Huang, X. (2016). Resting-state functional connectivity of the default mode network associated with happiness. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11(3), 516-524.
Mullally, S., & Maguire, E. (2014). Counterfactual thinking in patients with amnesia. Hippocampus, 24(11), 1261-1266.
Roese, N. (1997). Counterfactual Thinking. Psychological Bulletin, 121(1), 133-148.
Van Hoeck, N., Ma, N., Van Overwalle, F., & Vandekerckhove, M. (2016). Counterfactual Thinking and the Episodic System. Behavioural Neurology, 23(4).