“If Only”: The Good and the Bad of Counterfactuals

One of my all-time favorite movie series is Back to the Future. Not only does it provide exciting glimpses into ’80s fashion, ’50s nostalgia, and the American Wild West, it emphasizes how altering a single moment in history can change everything. If it showed me anything as a kid, it was that I, unlike Marty McFly, was not up for the responsibility of time travel.

Although I learned that history is probably best left unchanged, I often think of how past scenarios could have been different, whether it be in my own past, or in history more generally. These thoughts are called “counterfactuals,” and they’re a topic of interest in the scientific literature due to their impact on our mood and on our understandings of the world.

Counterfactuals are “what could have been.” They are the roads not taken, or the alternative realities. Engaging in counterfactual reasoning is a ubiquitous mental process that we develop from ages 6-12. This concept frequently comes up in psychological, economic, and political science research.1,2

I, personally, am a fervid counterfactual-er. I constantly think back to past events imagining how they might have been better, worse, or simply different. Yet, I wondered, is there any benefit to doing so? Or am I just wasting precious mental energy on scenarios that will never occur?

Research provides insight into how our brains make sense of the past, why we rehash what’s already done, and how doing so can help us.

Norm theory, the simulation heuristic, and mutability

One of the earliest theoretical explanations of counterfactual thinking as a mental process is the simulation heuristic and norm theory.3,4,5 The simulation heuristic explains how our brains are likely to believe things that are easy to picture mentally. Similarly, norm theory describes how we tend to have stronger emotional responses to events with abnormal causes, or events that could have been easily changed.

So, first, an example of our mental processes in generating counterfactuals.

In an experiment, participants were informed that a drug-crazed teenager ran a red light and hit Mr. Jones in his car, resulting in a fatal accident.

Participants read one of two scenarios:

On the day of the accident, Mr. Jones left his office at the regular time. He sometimes left early to take care of home chores at his wife’s request, but this was not necessary on that day. Mr. Jones did not drive home by his regular route. The day was exceptionally clear, and Mr. Jones told his friends at the office that he would drive along the shore to enjoy the view.

Or

On the day of the accident, Mr. Jones left the office earlier than usual, to attend to some household chores at his wife’s request. He drove home along his regular route. Mr. Jones occasionally chose to drive along the shore, to enjoy the view on exceptionally clear days, but that day was just average.

One statement emphasizes an abnormal change in route, the other a change in time. While the reader technically could have attributed time and route as causal in both scenarios, participants focused on the exceptional action, not the routine habit, as the cause.

The idea that these events were both caused by abnormal circumstances (and thus could have been avoided) allows us to consider even more possible alternatives. What if he hadn’t left early? What if he had taken a different route? Would the outcome have been different? (At the same time, we neglect to consider other, external, factors, like the teenager who caused the accident.)3,4

Norm theory explains this phenomenon in that certain factors are more likely to lead us to imagine different scenarios than others.3 That is, we believe some events are more easily changed than others. Examples include focusing more on the effect than on the cause, or focusing more on the behavior of an individual victim’s actions than the circumstances in which they were acting.

We also may respond more emotionally to some alternatives than others. For example, suppose two individuals share a cab to the airport, which gets stuck in traffic and delayed for several hours. In that case, we are likely to assume that the individual who just missed their flight by ten minutes would be more upset than the individual whose flight left 2 hours ago.

In moments that are deeply frustrating or traumatic, one might think that we are more likely to blame ourselves for cases in which the event was a cause of our own doing. But research shows this is not the case. In experiments where participants experienced similar losses or gains, yet differed in the degree to which their decisions influenced the outcome, participants had similar feelings of regret regardless of whether or not they were responsible.6 It seems that our feelings may be based more on the outcome and not our involvement.

While it is interesting to understand how our mental processes work, it is important to remember that counterfactual reasoning is “rapid, automatic, and essentially immune to voluntary control after its initiation.”5 It is inevitable, and serves many functional purposes.

Different types of counterfactuals and how they help us

The above examples show how our brain engages in counterfactuals, and what aspects might influence an emotional or irrational response. But counterfactuals are not necessarily bad or irrational. They serve an important purpose.

First, it’s important to distinguish between “upward and downward” counterfactuals. In the scientific literature, upward counterfactuals involve thinking about how the situation could have been better. In the car accident example, an upward counterfactual could be thinking about what would have happened if the driver had left at his usual time, or had taken a different route and dodged the accident entirely.

In contrast, downward counterfactuals are how the situation could have been worse.5,7 In this same example, that might involve thinking about what could have happened had there been more people in the car with Mr. Jones, or if the accident had turned into a multi-vehicle pile-up that caused even more injury and suffering.

Downward counterfactuals can be incredibly useful, especially to soothe ourselves emotionally. In realizing that the situation could have been worse, we find relief in knowing that we dodged a more negative outcome.5 Downward counterfactuals may repair mood functions and are a useful tool in helping us deal with potentially negative information.5

The opposite, upward counterfactuals, also have functional benefits. While thinking about how a situation could have been better may not be particularly enjoyable, those who generate upward counterfactuals are likely to change their behavior in the future.5,7

Yet, what may have a unique effect may not be our upward or downward processes, but how we add or take away from the situation.

Adding and subtracting

In some instances, we use additive or subtractive counterfactuals. An additive counterfactual is adding new information to the scenario—for instance, thinking “I should have studied more.” A subtractive, by contrast, involves removing scenarios: “I should have never taken that class.”

Subtractive counterfactuals are related to more analytical thinking, helping us consider how things work together. Consider the game Jenga, wherein the player must remove a single block each round, risking a collapse. With each subtraction, players must consider how a single block relates to the stability of the entire structure.8

Yet additive thinking has its function as well. When we engage in additive counterfactual thinking, we are more creative, consider more novel options, and make more behavioral improvements.5 Take, for example, social entrepreneurs—such as those of Project Aspire, an innovative effort to end homelessness. By engaging in additive counterfactuals, they were able to think outside the box of existing systems and visualize novel solutions to social problems.9

The role of opportunity in counterfactual thinking

Whether we engage in upward or downward counterfactuals seems to be affected by the opportunities that are available to us. When opportunities exist that we feel we’re not fully taking advantage of, we’re likely to engage in upward counterfactuals, inspiring feelings of regret and spurring us to action. In contrast, when opportunities are taken away—for example, not getting the job you applied for—our main concern is feeling better, leading us to engage in more downward counterfactuals (“I probably wouldn’t have liked that job anyway. I dodged a bullet!”).

Paradoxically, this means that we’re more likely to feel satisfied when certain doors are closed to us than we are when those opportunities remain open.5 This nuance illustrates the different functions of counterfactuals. On the one hand, downward counterfactuals protect us from the emotional pain of rejection and failure. On the other hand, when we experience situations where we can still change the outcome, we can channel our energy and feelings of regret into concrete action.

Moderation is key: the dark side of counterfactual reasoning

While counterfactual reasoning is a helpful mental process and diagnostic tool at our disposal, it is essential to remember that moderation is key. Its absence is a warning sign of the onset of schizophrenia, yet its excess is a core symptom of depression and anxiety.5,10,11,12 As well, in counterfactual thinking, we can fall victim to biases like hindsight bias, self-serving bias, and cognitive dissonance.5,13

Counterfactuals may also influence how we perceive false information. In a 2018 experiment, Daniel Effron gave participants information they were told was untrue, and asked half of the participants to think about ways the information might have been true. In some instances, the untrue information aligned with the beliefs of Trump supporters; and in others, those of Clinton supporters. As a result, the participants who were asked to engage in counterfactual reasoning were less likely to see the lie itself as immoral.14,15 Even though participants knew the claims were false, they were more lenient on individuals who continued to spread the mistruth, especially if the liar aligned with their political beliefs. The danger of counterfactual thinking lies in its potential to make us more willing to accept unacceptable behavior.

Overall, counterfactual reasoning is a common mental process that is unavoidable and natural. It can make us improve our decisions and our mood, yet also increase our susceptibility to bias. Some key takeaways to counterfactual reasoning:

  • We are consistently inconsistent in how we reason: In creating alternative scenarios for past events, we tend to emphasize events that seem easily changed, being influenced by factors like seemingly “abnormal” events, or focal actors.
  • Different directions have different results: Downward counterfactual reasoning (what could have been worse) helps us think positively. In contrast, upward counterfactual reasoning (what could have been better) may be more influential in changing future behavior.
  • How we feel depends on whether the door is “opened” or “closed”: One of the best explanations for whether we use counterfactual reasoning to feel better or to change our behavior depends on the availability of opportunity.
  • With great power comes great responsibility: While a useful process, too little or too much counterfactual reasoning can lead to depression or anxiety and can influence how we perceive those who spread lies.

Moving forward, I know I’ll still probably try to convince myself that a situation could have been worse, or find new ways to make new situations better. But instead of feeling guilty about doing so, feeling that I am shrouded in delusion, I can remind myself that certain events are out of our control, and rest in the knowledge that my mental processing can turn those situations into teachable moments. Plus, I will continue to believe it is for the better that I don’t have access to a time machine.

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