Counterfactual thinking is our everyday adventure companion. Although we are not fully aware of its existence, it is almost always present. Whenever we use terms such as "almost" or "shortly" it is the counterfactual thought that speaks, leading us to visualize alternative paths to what has materialized.
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 over that other I would feel better" refer to imaginary events that contradict the facts. They are the expression of a kind of thinking that can be very useful in preventing future mistakes or can condemn us to dissatisfaction and remorse for what could have been, but was not.
What is counterfactual thinking?
Counterfactual thinking is a cognitive process we use to imagine a different path from the one undertaken, whether it is important or less significant historical events in our life. Through counterfactual thinking we challenge time and reality by rethinking what happened and imagining what society or our life would be like if everything had followed a different course.
This type of thinking is triggered by failure and fantasizes about what would have to happen to achieve the goal. In fact, it often takes the form of ucronie, narratives that describe an alternative present that was never realized. But it can also be positive, like when we tell ourselves that "everything could have been worse".
As our reality is constantly changing and the future is uncertain, it is normal for us to look for points of reference to hold on to. Right now, as we try to make sense of what has happened to us and continues to happen, a kind of battle is taking place in our mind that leads us to think about how things could have gone. So counterfactual thinking comes into play. Counterfactual thinking allows us to explore different scenarios through the question: "What would have happened if ...?" and imagine alternative results to that event.
The types of counterfactual thinking
Each type of counterfactual thinking has a different purpose and takes us down different paths, so it's important to understand which one we use most often.
Since counterfactual thinking involves a comparison between two situations, it can be classified based on the results of that comparison:
1. Ascendant. This thinking occurs when we directly compare a real negative situation with a possibility that we consider to be better. An example is: “if I had prepared myself better for the job interview, they would have given me the job”. In this case, counterfactual thinking becomes a kind of guide for the future because 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. It compares a positive real situation with a possibility that we consider worse. For example: “if I had arrived late for the job interview, they would not have hired me”. In this case, the imagined events are worse.
Counterfactual thinking also relies heavily on our imagination, so we have:
1. Fantastic thinking. Fantastic counterfactual thinking draws on our creativity and arbitrarily alters reality to imagine different results. For example: “if I had wings, I would avoid this traffic jam”. Although it is not very frequent because it has no practical use, it helps us to endure a situation that makes us uncomfortable by imagining a better, even if impossible, situation.
2. Real thinking. Real counterfactual thinking does not alter the logic of the world, but it does include small changes. For example: "if I had arrived 10 minutes earlier I would have taken the plane" or "if I had been silent I would have avoided the discussion". They are alternative paths from which we draw a lesson for the future.
Depending on the alternative solution we choose, counterfactual thinking can also be divided into:
1. Additive thinking. In this case, it adds precedents 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 the facts from the past event when we reconstruct another version of reality. For example, we can say to ourselves: "if I hadn't had the last beer, I would have arrived in time".
Both additive and subtractive counterfactual thinking facilitate the generation of new ideas and offer us solutions for the future. They stimulate creative association and remote associations 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 about the action. When we feel regret for action, it means we didn't want to do something. We can think, for example: “I should have kept quiet”. This type of counterfactual thinking is most common in the short term, a few days or weeks.
2. Regret for inaction. When we regret inaction, it means that we would have liked to do something. It is curious that this trend is more common in the long run and manifests itself after months or even years, referring to events more distant in time. For example: “I should have spent more time with my partner”.
Lights and shadows of counterfactual thought
The functionality of counterfactual thinking depends on many factors, from the type of problem or event that affects 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 ability to review the consequences of our decisions or past events and reconsider them by recreating a different future is psychologically beneficial. Indeed, counterfactual thinking is not a mere retrospective recreation of what may have happened, but it can become the first step in a constructive process by mentally simulating new possibilities that could be perfectly valid in the immediate future.
Counterfactual thinking can help streamline decision making by helping us see things from a broader perspective through past experience. It therefore allows us to prevent errors, especially when we think of recurring or repeatable events.
Even thoughts related to negative events can help us mitigate an unpleasant reality and evade feelings of helplessness and frustration by inducing, even if fleetingly, a positive emotional state when we simulate good results.
Imagining that in an alternate reality we get the job or don't miss the plane can reassure us and motivate us to do more in the future. Thinking that we could have done something else or made another decision can give us hope and motivate us to face the future with a more optimistic attitude.
On the other hand, counterfactual thinking can become dysfunctional when it promotes feelings of guilt about past events that we cannot change or generates regret, anger or frustration. In fact, keeping it long-term, going back to the same facts over and over again, isn't psychologically beneficial, but leads to obsession.
Some events of the past, for example, may have had important consequences in our life, but evoking them is not useful because they are lost opportunities and we cannot do anything to remedy, neither in the present nor in the future. This is the case of extraordinary events that happen once in a lifetime and mark it, such as the choice of a career.
In fact, the contrast that this type of thinking produces generates or amplifies what are known as “counterfactual emotions”. The most common counterfactual emotions are negative, such as frustration, guilt, regret, shame, indignation, grief, or even envy.
Of course, feeling those emotions by going back to the past can become a double-edged sword that ends up emotionally unbalancing us. There is always the risk that counterfactual thinking turns into an incessant mental reproach that does not help us at all.
Use counterfactual thinking constructively
Counterfactual thinking can be a great 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 repeating the same mistakes and plan for the future better. Although they also use descending counterfactual thinking to celebrate having saved themselves from some trouble.
Instead, pessimistic people may end up blaming themselves. They become victims of the double bind theory by presenting dead-end scenarios. They might think, for example: "if I had been smarter they would have given me the job" or "if I had taken another route 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 went wrong or what we could have done better about the future.