Counterfactual Thinking Essays

On By In 1

Causal Inference

Regarding the content-specific pathway, the conceptual glue that binds together the counterfactual and the behavioral intention is a causal inference. That is, a causal insight about the power of a particular action to bring about a particular desired end transfers from the counterfactual to the intention, giving meaning in terms of “why” the action in question might be a good thing to do. To say that one might have gotten a better grade by studying harder (a counterfactual) is to say that studying causes better grades. Whether phrased as a counterfactual (e.g., “should have studied harder”) or an intention (e.g., “I will study harder next time”), the causal meaning remains the same, and indeed is the same as in a generic explanation of a known outcome (e.g., “Sheila got a good grade because she studied hard”).

Numerous experiments have manipulated counterfactual thinking and measured shifts in causal reasoning, either in terms of indirect manipulation of counterfactual salience (e.g., Branscombe & Weir, 1992; Burrus & Roese, 2006; Creyer & Gurhan, 1997; Macrae, 1992; Macrae et al., 1993; Nario-Redmond & Branscombe, 1996; Roese & Maniar, 1997; Wells & Gavanski, 1989) or in terms of more direct presence versus absence of explicit counterfactual information (e.g., Branscombe, Owen, Garstka, & Coleman, 1996; German, 1999; Goldinger, Kleider, Azuma, & Beike, 2003; Harris, German, & Mills, 1996; Mandel & Dahmi, 2005; Roese & Olson, 1996; Wells & Gavanski, 1989). Although there has been debate about the precise connection of counterfactuals to causal inference (Mandel, 2003; N’gbala & Branscombe, 1995; Spellman, 1997; Spellman, Kincannon, & Stose, 2005; Spellman & Mandel, 1999), we suggest the simple conclusion that causal insight is a property or characteristic of counterfactual thinking. That is, to the extent that a counterfactual takes the form of a conditional proposition (i.e., an “if-then” statement), its very essence embodies a causal proposition.


For the content-specific pathway to operate, the insights obtained from a counterfactual must be functional. If a plane crash was in fact due to pilot error, for example, yet accident investigators later conclude that the crash was due to an aircraft design flaw, then this inaccuracy in causal ascription will result in some very dysfunctional consequences. Time and money would be wasted in addressing the wrong cause of the accident while neglecting a remedy for the true cause. In grappling with the issue of accuracy in social judgment more generally (e.g., Kruglanski, 1989; Swann, 1984), a pragmatic conception of accuracy has proven useful. The criterion to measure accuracy in this line of thinking would be whether a judgment matches real-life demands. Similarly, we would define functionality of a counterfactual as accurate in terms of real-world implications. However, abundant research has shown that spontaneous human reasoning can be flawed in many ways (e.g., Gilovich, Griffin, & Kahneman, 2002). Yet it has also been shown that on careful consideration of the available information, individuals oftentimes arrive at surprisingly accurate conclusions (Försterling, 1994; Kruglanski & Freund, 1983). Moreover, being motivated to form an accurate judgment (as would be the case in an aircraft accident investigation) tends to increase accuracy (Kunda, 1990). Consistent with a dual process framework, we assume that the degree to which counterfactual inferences are accurate depends to a large extent on an individual’s accuracy motivation, as well as on the individual’s information processing capacity (see Kahneman, 1995; Sherman & McConnell, 1995). However, when it comes to spontaneous counterfactuals, a number of mechanisms connected to goal-directed cognition may also enhance their accuracy.

Causal inferences may be rapid and spontaneous (Hassin, Bargh, & Uleman, 2002) and are especially pervasive following unexpected outcomes (Clary & Tesser, 1983; Kanazawa, 1992; Kunda, Miller, & Claire, 1990). For counterfactuals to benefit behavior automatically, correction processes must therefore be similarly automatic. Initially, however, several counterfactual thoughts might be spontaneously generated, with varying degrees of plausibility. We suggest that an implicit filtering mechanism results in the inhibition of all but the most plausible. Such a mechanism has already been discussed with regard to visual recognition (Peterson, 1994), verbal comprehension (Gernsbacher & Faust, 1991; Swinney, 1979; Twilley & Dixon, 2000), and stereotyping (Bodenhausen & Macrae, 1998). That is, the presentation of a stimulus (an object, a word, or a person), particularly if ambiguous, may result in the parallel activation of multiple possible meanings (e.g., several different identifications of the object, such as bird versus bat; multiple meanings generated on hearing the word bat, such as flying mammal versus wooden stick; or multiple group-level categorizations of a person, for example as a woman vs. as a librarian). In each of these examples, the less plausible interpretations are inhibited within hundreds of milliseconds, leaving behind a few, or just one, interpretation to go on to influence subsequent judgment. Moreover, philosophical essays on the logical basis of conditional reasoning have offered the same insight (e.g., Evans & Over, 2004; Johnson-Laird & Byrne, 2002). On the basis of a thought experiment by Ramsey (1990), it has been argued that people test the subjective probability of a conditional based on a relatively simple procedure. The antecedent is temporarily assumed to be valid. Then, if the resulting cause-consequence relation can be easily imagined to hold, a high probability is assigned. If not, then the conditional is evaluated as relatively improbable. In other words, if the assumed relation between cause and effect constitutes an obvious mismatch with the individual’s understanding of reality, the relation is tagged as invalid. Over, Hadjichristidis, Evans, Handley, and Sloman (2007) provided evidence for similar underlying mechanisms between the processing of causal conditionals, probability judgments, and counterfactual thinking. Their results suggest that the Ramsey test might indeed be an important aspect of the basic cognitive mechanisms behind counterfactual thinking. Therefore, we suggest that if multiple counterfactuals are generated after failure experiences, only the most plausible and realistic (with regard to their match to pragmatic knowledge of the world) remain to guide further behavior (cf. Evans & Over, 2004; Kahneman & Miller, 1986; Over & Evans, 2003; Seelau, Seelau, Wells, & Windschitl, 1995). Direct evidence for these rapid probability estimations and logic-testing procedures remains, however, for future research to uncover.

In addition, three mechanisms identified in other lines of research may help further to increase the causal accuracy of counterfactual thoughts. First, counterfactuals that focus on actions that are not feasible or aim toward situations that are no longer open to modification tend to be suppressed via dissonance reduction (cf. Gilbert & Ebert, 2002; Gilovich, Medvec, & Chen, 1995; Roese & Summerville, 2005). Second, goal-related constructs that are higher in accessibility tend to facilitate goal pursuit while at the same time blocking pursuit of competing goals (i.e., goal shielding; see Brendl, Markman, & Messner, 2003; Shah, Friedman, & Kruglanski, 2002). Third, after completion of the goal, goal concepts in memory tend to be deactivated or reduced in accessibility (Förster, Liberman, & Higgins, 2005; Zeigarnik, 1927). These three mechanisms (dissonance reduction, goal shielding, and the Zeigarnik effect) operate automatically to clear away some of the less insightful goal-related counterfactual thoughts.

Even so, these various accuracy-enhancing mechanisms are far from perfect. Many inaccurate or uninsightful counterfactuals may still survive to the point of feeding into ongoing behavior. Some may be distorted in a self-serving direction (Roese & Olson, 1993a); others may be plain wrong (Sherman & McConnell, 1995). Indeed, some dysfunctional counterfactuals become the fodder for rumination, as when a car accident victim focuses relentlessly on how she might have avoided the accident, even though to an outside observer the accident was attributable entirely to the other driver, who was drunk at the time (cf. Davis, Lehman, Wortman, Silver, & Thompson, 1995). Such self-blame-engendering counterfactuals may exacerbate negative affect, become a risk factor for depression, and yet bring no benefit in terms of behavior regulation (Lecci, Okun, & Karoly, 1994; Markman & Miller, 2006; Oettingen, Pak, & Schnetter, 2001; Sanna et al., 2003, 2006).

The state of the literature does not permit a clear statement as to the mean accuracy of the average counterfactual thought. Some are accurate and useful; some are not. Effort and ability increase accuracy. And even at the implicit, automatic level, several mechanisms operate to increase accuracy. More generally, this perspective emphasizes that two distinct pathways (content specific vs. content neutral) underlie the connection between counterfactual thinking and behavior. The issue of counterfactual accuracy is important only for the content-specific mechanism. For the content-neutral mechanism, accuracy is irrelevant because those effects emerge independently of the particular information contained in the counterfactual, be it accurate or absurd. Thus, taking this broader view, it becomes clear that one of the main reasons for the general usefulness of counterfactual thinking is that it can produce performance benefits in two ways, only one of which hinges on causal accuracy.

Kinds of Counterfactuals: Structure Fits Function

Not all counterfactual thinking is useful for behavior regulation, and several typologies help further to specify which kinds of counterfactuals are best suited for this role. Three main distinctions are summarized below (see Table 1).

Direction of comparison

This distinction (between upward vs. downward comparisons) was borrowed from earlier writings on social comparison theory (e.g., Brickman & Bulman, 1977; Wills, 1981). It boils down to an emphasis on improvement versus preservation of the status quo. Whereas an upward counterfactual can tell you how to get ahead, a downward counterfactual can tell you only how to keep things from getting worse. Within the content-specific pathway, upward comparisons are generally more useful for behavior regulation than are downward comparisons, in that the specific insights in an upward comparison center more closely on new action and new strategies than do those of downward comparisons. Within the content-neutral pathway, both upward and downward counterfactuals may be useful. For example, upward and downward counterfactuals may arouse a counterfactual mind-set to the same extent (Galinsky & Moskowitz, 2000). Further, upward and downward counterfactuals may each exert affective motivational effects (Markman et al., 2008; McMullen & Markman, 2000).


This distinction boils down to whether the counterfactual is constructed by adding versus removing elements that were in fact present in actuality. An additive counterfactual (akin to a regret of inaction) focuses on doing something that was not, in fact, done (e.g., “If only I had gone to dental school”). A subtractive counterfactual (akin to regret of action) focuses on the deletion of something that was done (e.g., “If only I hadn’t gone to graduate school”). Sometimes, this distinction is not informative, as when a choice is between only two options (e.g., picking heads or tails at the start of a sports match). In such cases, picking heads implies not picking tails, and vice versa. More often, however, choices embrace a multitude of options (e.g., selecting a meal from among a dozen menu options), and then the additive counterfactual becomes more specific than the subtractive. The subtractive counterfactual removes one choice from consideration (“I shouldn’t have ordered the fish”), leaving unstated the specific option that should be chosen. For this reason, additive counterfactual thinking often involves more creativity, more consideration of novel options (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995; Markman et al., 2007; Roese & Olson, 1995b). With regard to behavior regulation, greater clarity, specificity, and creativity may bring relatively greater performance improvements.

Subtractive counterfactuals usually involve negated information (“If only I had not started smoking”) whereas additive counterfactuals do not (they specify affirmation, which is accomplished grammatically by the absence a marker of negation, as in “If only I had started exercising”). Recent findings indicate that although negations are easily understood when information is processed explicitly, the meaning of negations may be lost when the same information is processed implicitly (DeCoster, Banner, Smith, & Semin, 2006; Deutsch, Gawronski, & Strack, 2006; Kaup & Zwaan, 2003). For example, the statement “Ben was not happy,” when processed implicitly by way of lower-level associative pattern activation, might involve the loss of the “not” marker, resulting in a different inference (“Ben was happy”). The processing of negated information seems to require more controlled mental operations, and so it may be the case that subtractive (relative to additive) counterfactuals offer a lower potential to elicit automatic behavioral intentions. We hope that future research tests this idea.

The ideas described above center on the content-specific pathway. As we have already noted, the additive versus subtractive distinction has also proven useful as a way to differentiate counterfactual mind-sets (Markman et al., 2007). The finding that additive counterfactuals bring greater improvements than downward counterfactuals on an anagram task (Roese, 1994) could be interpreted as evidence for either pathway. Thus, the additive-subtractive distinction has proven informative in understanding the functional benefits of counterfactual thinking.

Self versus other

This distinction is simply between a focus on one’s own actions as opposed to the actions of others. When it comes to regret, self-focus is a basic, defining feature (i.e., many articles define regret in terms of an emotion stemming from one’s own decision or action). Counterfactual thoughts may focus on self or other, and it is straightforward that self-focused thoughts are more useful for self-improvement than are other-focused counterfactuals. Although one may learn from the mistakes of others, insights that are self-directed are by definition more specific in their focus on personal improvement.

In looking across the three distinctions described above, it is interesting to note that those counterfactuals most useful for behavior regulation are indeed the ones that are most frequent in everyday life (Roese et al., 2005). Upward counterfactuals are more common than downward counterfactuals (Nasco & Marsh, 1999; Roese & Hur, 1997; Roese & Olson, 1997), additive are more frequent than subtractive counterfactuals (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995; Roese et al., 1999; Roese & Olson, 1993a, 1993b), and self-focused are more common than other-focused (Davis et al., 1995; White & Roese, 2007). True, many situational moderators of these main effects have been established (e.g., Gilovich & Medvec, 1995; Roese et al., 1999; White & Lehman, 2005; Zeelenberg, van den Bos, van Dijk, & Pieters, 2002), but the mere existence of these three main effects represents a very basic indication of the value of the functional theory of counterfactual thinking, in the sense that these main effects are not readily explained by norm theory or by mental models theory.

A recent investigation using the experience sampling approach has provided the clearest picture to date of the relative frequency of these different kinds of counterfactuals across a variety of life circumstances (Summerville & Roese, in press). Participants carried a small palmtop computer for a period of 2 weeks, during which it beeped at random intervals to solicit participants’ descriptions of their current thoughts. Counterfactuals were more likely to be upward than downward (measured on a continuous scale), and self-focused counterfactuals outnumbered other-focused counterfactuals by more than 2:1 (the addition vs. subtraction distinction was not assessed in this study). White and Roese (2007) used laboratory tasks to discover no self-other differences in downward counterfactual thinking but greater upward counterfactual thinking aimed at the self than at others. Although self-reported improvement motives were found to account for much of upward counterfacsstual thinking, counterfactual thinking was tempered by impression management concerns related to the desire to avoid making callous ascriptions of blame to another person. For example, in one study participants played a lab version of Texas hold’em poker, with counterfactual comments recorded during gameplay. Although impression management concerns moderated the results, upward outnumbered downward counterfactuals overall, and self-focused outnumbered other-focused counterfactuals. These studies provide further evidence that the types of counterfactual thoughts in daily life tend to be ideally suited to meeting the needs of behavior regulation.

Interactions Between the Two Pathways

The consideration of two main pathways by which counterfactuals might influence behavior suggests a novel consideration, thus far unaddressed in the literature: What interactive effects appear when the two pathways merge? By highlighting the similarities to related models, we may derive some new suggestions and hypotheses.

The most basic assumption is that the compatibility between the two pathways should strengthen the link between a counterfactual thought and a specific behavior. Recently, Strack and Deutsch (2004) have shown that psychological compatibility is a fundamental principle that can account for a variety of phenomena, especially the links between affect, motivational state, and behavior. Similarly, research on regulatory focus theory has shown the benefits of compatibility between motivational orientation and the type of goal individuals pursue (i.e., “value from fit”; see Higgins, 2005; Higgins & Spiegel, 2004; Shah, Higgins, & Friedman, 1998). Extrapolating these findings to this discussion, we propose that when the components of the two pathways can benefit from each other, and when more components are activated, the stronger the resulting connection between counterfactual thoughts and behavior.

For other uses, see Counterfactual (disambiguation).

Counterfactual thinking is a concept in psychology that involves the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred; something that is contrary to what actually happened. Counterfactual thinking is, as it states: "counter to the facts".[1] These thoughts consist of the "What if?" and the "If I had only..." that occur when thinking of how things could have turned out differently. Counterfactual thoughts include things that – in the present – now could never happen in reality because they solely pertain to events that have occurred in the past.[1]


The term "Counterfactual" is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as contrary to the facts.[2] A counterfactual thought occurs when a person modifies a factual prior event and then assesses the consequences of that change. A person may imagine how an outcome could have turned out differently, if the antecedents that led to that event were different. For example, a person may reflect upon how a car accident could have turned out by imagining how some of the factors could have been different, for example, If only I hadn't been speeding.... These alternatives can be better or worse than the actual situation, and in turn give improved or more disastrous possible outcomes, If only I hadn't been speeding, my car wouldn't have been wrecked or If I hadn't been wearing a seatbelt, I would have been killed.[3]

Counterfactual thoughts have been shown to produce negative emotions, however they may also produce functional or beneficial effects. Ideas that create a more negative outcome are downward counterfactuals and those thoughts that create a more positive outcome are considered upward counterfactuals.[1] These counterfactual thoughts, or thoughts of what could have happened, can affect people's emotions, such as causing them to experience regret, guilt, relief, or satisfaction. They can also affect how they view social situations, such as who deserves blame and responsibility.[4]


The origin of counterfactual thinking has philosophical roots and can be traced back to early philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato who pondered the epistemological status of subjunctive suppositions and their nonexistent but feasible outcomes.[5] In the seventeenth century, the German philosopher, Leibniz, argued that there could be an infinite number of alternate worlds, so long as they were not in conflict with laws of logic.[3] The well known philosopher Nicholas Rescher (as well as others) has written about the interrelationship between counterfactual reasoning and modal logic.[6] The relationship between counterfactual reasoning based upon modal logic may also be exploited in literature or Victorian Studies, painting and poetry.[7][8][9]Ruth M.J. Byrne in The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality (2005) proposed that the mental representations and cognitive processes that underlie the imagination of alternatives to reality are similar to those that underlie rational thought, including reasoning from counterfactual conditionals.

More recently, counterfactual thinking has gained interest from a psychological perspective. Cognitive scientists have examined the mental representations and cognitive processes that underlie the creation of counterfactuals.[10][11]Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (1982) pioneered the study of counterfactual thought, showing that people tend to think 'if only' more often about exceptional events than about normal events.[12] Many related tendencies have since been examined, e.g., whether the event is an action or inaction, whether it is controllable, its place in the temporal order of events, or its causal relation to other events.[13] Social psychologists have studied cognitive functioning and counterfactuals in a larger, social context.[3]

Early research on counterfactual thinking took the perspective that these kinds of thoughts were indicative of poor coping skills, psychological error or bias, and generally dysfunctional in nature.[14] As research developed, a new wave of insight beginning in the 1990s began taking a functional perspective, believing that counterfactual thinking served as a largely beneficial behavioral regulator. Although negative affect and biases arise, the overall benefit is positive for human behavior.[14]


There are two portions to counterfactual thinking. First, there is the activation portion. This activation is whether we allow the counterfactual thought to seep into our conscious thought. The second portion involves content. This content portion creates the end scenario for the antecedent.[1]

The activation portion leads into the mystery of why we allow ourselves to think of other alternatives that could have been beneficial or harmful to us. It is believed that humans tend to think of counterfactual ideas when there were exceptional circumstances that led to an event, and thus could have been avoided in the first place. We also tend to create counterfactual ideas when we feel guilty about a situation and wish to exert more control. For example, in a study by Davis et al., parents who suffered the death of an infant were more likely to counterfactual think 15 months later if they felt guilty about the incident or if there were odd circumstances surrounding the mortality. In the case of a death of natural causes, parents tended to counterfactual think to a lesser extent over the course of time.[1]

Another factor that determines how much we use counterfactual thought is how close we were to an alternative outcome. This is especially true when there is a negative outcome that was this close to a positive outcome. For example, in a study by Meyers-Levy and Maheswaran, subjects were more likely to counterfactual think alternative circumstances for a target if his house burned down three days after he forgot to renew his insurance versus six months after he forgot to renew his insurance. Therefore, the idea that a final outcome almost occurred plays a role in the reason we emphasize that outcome.[1]

Functional basis[edit]

One may wonder why we continue to think in counterfactual ways if these thoughts tend to make us feel guilty or negatively about an outcome. One of the functional reasons for this is to correct for mistakes and to avoid making them again in the future. If a person is able to consider another outcome based on a different path, they may take that path in the future and avoid the undesired outcome. It is obvious that the past cannot be changed, however, it is likely that similar situations may occur in the future, and thus we take our counterfactual thoughts as a learning experience.[1] For example, if a person has a terrible interview and thinks about how it may have been more successful if they had responded in a more confident manner, they are more likely to respond more confidently in their next interview.

Risk aversion[edit]

Main article: Risk aversion (psychology)

Another reason we continue to use counterfactual theory is to avoid situations that may be unpleasant to us, which is part of our approach and avoidance behavior. Often, people make a conscious effort to avoid situations that may make them feel unpleasant. However, despite our best efforts, we sometimes find ourselves in these unpleasant situations anyway. In these situations, we continue to use counterfactual thinking to think of ways that that event could have been avoided and in turn to learn to avoid those situations again in the future.[1] For example, if a person finds hospitals to be an uncomfortable place, but find themselves in one due to cutting their finger while doing dishes, they may think of ways they could have avoided going to the hospital by tending to the wound themselves or doing the dishes more carefully.

Behavior intention[edit]

We continue to use counterfactual thoughts to change our future behavior in a way that is more positive, or behavior intention. This can involve making a change in our behavior immediately after the negative event occurred. By actively making a behavioral change, we are completely avoiding the problem again in the future. An example, is forgetting about Mother's Day, and immediately writing the date on the calendar for the following year, as to definitely avoid the problem.[15]

Goal-directed activity[edit]

In the same sense as behavior intention, people tend to use counterfactual thinking in goal-directed activity. Past studies have shown that counterfactuals serve a preparative function on both individual and group level. When people fail to achieve their goals, counterfactual thinking will be activated (e.g., studying more after a disappointing grade;[14]). When they engage in upward counterfactual thinking, people are able to imagine alternatives with better positive outcomes. The outcome seems worse when compared to positive alternative outcomes. This realization motivates them to take positive action in order to meet their goal in the future.[16][17]

Markman, Gavanski, Sherman, and McMullen (1993) identified the repeatability of an event as an important factor in determining what function will be used. For events that happen repeatedly (e.g., sport games) there is an increased motivation to imagine alternative antecedents in order to prepare for a better future outcome. For one-time events, however, the opportunity to improve future performance does not exist, so it is more likely that the person will try to alleviate disappointment by imagining how things could have been worse. The direction of the counterfactual statement is also indicative of which function may be used. Upward counterfactuals have a greater preparative function and focus on future improvement, while downward counterfactuals are used as a coping mechanism in an affective function. Furthermore, additive counterfactuals have shown greater potential to induce behavioral intentions of improving performance.[14] Hence, counterfactual thinking motivates individuals to making goal-oriented actions in order to attain their (failed) goal in the future.

Collective action[edit]

Main article: Collective action

On the other hand, at a group level, counterfactual thinking can lead to collective action. According to Milesi and Catellani (2011), political activists exhibit group commitment and are more likely to re-engage in collective action following a collective defeat and show when they are engage in counterfactual thinking. Unlike the cognitive processes involved at individual level, abstract counterfactuals lead to an increase in group identification, which is positively correlated with collective action intention. The increase in group identification impacts on people's affect. Abstract counterfactuals also lead to an increase in group efficacy. Increase in group efficacy translates to belief that the group has the ability to change outcomes in situations. This in turn motivates group members to make group-based actions to attain their goal in the future.[16][18]

Benefits and consequences[edit]

When thinking of downward counterfactual thinking, or ways that the situation could have turned out worse, people tend to feel a sense of relief. For example, if after getting into a car accident somebody thinks "At least I wasn't speeding, then my car would have been totaled." This allows for consideration of the positives of the situation, rather than the negatives. In the case of upward counterfactual thinking, people tend to feel more negative affect (e.g., regret, disappointment) about the situation. When thinking in this manner, people focus on ways that the situation could have turned out more positively: for example, "If only I had studied more, then I wouldn't have failed my test".[14]

Current research[edit]

As with many cognitive processes in the brain, current and upcoming research seeks to gain better insight into the functions and outcomes of how we think. Research for counterfactual thinking has recently been investigating various effects and how they might alter or contribute to counterfactual thinking. One study by Rim and Summerville (2014) investigated the distance of the event in terms of time and how this length of time can affect the process by which counterfactual thinking can occur. Their results showed that "people generated more downward counterfactuals about recent versus distant past events, while they tended to generate more upward counterfactuals about distant versus recent past events", which was consistent in their replications for social distance as well. They also examine the possible mechanism of manipulating social distance and the effect this could have on responding to negative events in either a self-improvement or self-enhancement motivations.[19]

Recent research by Scholl and Sassenberg (2014) looked to determine how perceived power in the situation can affect the counterfactual thought and process associated to understanding future directions and outlooks. The research examined how manipulating the perceived power of the individual in the given circumstance can lead to different thoughts and reflections, noting that "demonstrated that being powerless (vs. powerful) diminished self-focused counterfactual thinking by lowering sensed personal control". These results may show a relationship between how the self perceives events and determines the best course of action for future behavior.[20]


Upward and downward[edit]

Upward counterfactual thinking focuses on how the situation could have been better. Many times, people think about what they could have done differently. For example, "If I started studying three days ago, instead of last night, I could have done better on my test." Since people often think about what they could have done differently, it is not uncommon for people to feel regret during upward counterfactual thinking.

Downward counterfactual thinking focuses on how the situation could have been worse. In this scenario, a person can make themselves feel better about the outcome because they realize that the situation is not the worst it could be. For example, "I'm lucky I earned a 'C' on that; I didn't start studying until last night."[17][21]


A counterfactual statement may involve the action or inaction of an event that originally took place. An additive statement involves engaging in an event that did not originally occur (e.g., I should have taken medicine) wheres a subtractive statement involves removing an event that took place (e.g., I should have never started drinking).[14] Additive counterfactuals are more frequent than subtractive counterfactuals.[22]

Additive and upward counterfactual thinking focuses on "what else could I have done to do well?". Subtractive and upward counterfactual thinking focuses on "what shouldn't I have done so I could do well?". In contrast, an additive and downward scenario would be, "If I went drinking last night as well, I would have done even worse", while a subtractive and downward scenario would be, "if I didn't start studying two days ago, I would have done much worse".[23]

Self vs. other[edit]

This distinction simply refers to whether the counterfactual is about actions of the self (e.g., I should have slowed down) or someone else's actions (e.g., The other driver should have slowed down). Self counterfactuals are more prevalent than other person focused counterfactuals.[1]

Construal level theory explains that self counterfactuals are more prevalent because the event in question is psychologically closer than an event in which others are involved.[20]


Norm theory[edit]

Kahneman and Miller (1986)[24] proposed the norm theory as a theoretical basis to describe the rationale for counterfactual thoughts. Norm theory suggests that the ease of imagining a different outcome determines the counterfactual alternatives created. Norms involve a pairwise comparison between a cognitive standard and an experiential outcome. A discrepancy elicits an affective response which is influenced by the magnitude and direction of the difference.[3] For example, if a server makes twenty dollars more than a standard night, a positive affect will be evoked. If a student earns a lower grade than is typical, a negative affect will be evoked. Generally, upward counterfactuals are likely to result in a negative mood, while downward counterfactuals elicit positive moods.[25]

Kahneman and Miller (1986) also introduced the concept of mutability to describe the ease or difficulty of cognitively altering a given outcome. An immutable outcome (i.e., gravity) is difficult to modify cognitively whereas a mutable outcome (i.e., speed) is easier to cognitively modify. Most events lie somewhere in the middle of these extremes.[26] The more mutable the antecedents of an outcome are, the greater availability there is of counterfactual thoughts.[3]

Wells and Gavanski (1989) studied counterfactual thinking in terms of mutability and causality. An event or antecedent is considered causal if mutating that event will lead to undoing the outcome. Some events are more mutable than others. Exceptional events (i.e., taking an unusual route then getting into an accident) are more mutable than normal events (i.e., taking a usual route and getting into an accident).[27] This mutability, however, may only pertain to exceptional cases (i.e., car accident).[26] Controllable events (i.e., intentional decision) are typically more mutable than uncontrollable events (i.e., natural disaster).[28] In short, the greater the number of alternative outcomes constructed, the more unexpected the event, and the stronger emotional reaction elicited.

Rational imagination theory[edit]

Byrne (2005) outlined a set of cognitive principles that guide the possibilities that people think about when they imagine an alternative to reality.[10][29] Experiments show that people tend to think about realistic possibilities, rather than unrealistic possibilities, and they tend to think about few possibilities rather than many.[30] Counterfactuals are special in part because they require people to think about at least two possibilities (reality, and an alternative to reality), and to think about a possibility that is false, temporarily assumed to be true.[31] Experiments have corroborated the proposal that the principles that guide the possibilities that people think about most readily, explain their tendencies to focus on, for example, exceptional events rather than normal events,[32][33] actions rather than inactions,[34][35] and more recent events rather than earlier events in a sequence.[36][37]

Functional theory[edit]

The functional theory looks at how counterfactual thinking and its cognitive processes benefit people. Counterfactuals serve a preparative function, and help people avoid past blunders.[38] Counterfactual thinking also serves the affective function to make a person feel better. By comparing one's present outcome to a less desirable outcome, the person may feel better about the current situation (1995). For example, a disappointed runner who did not win a race may feel better by saying, "At least I did not come in last."

Although counterfactual thinking is largely adaptive in its functionality, there are exceptions. For individuals experiencing severe depressive symptoms, perceptions of control are diminished by negative self-perceptions and low self-efficacy. As a result, motivation for self-improvement is weakened. Even when depressed individuals focus on controllable events, their counterfactuals are less reasonable and feasible.[39] Epstude and Roese (2008) propose that excessive counterfactual thoughts can lead people to worry more about their problems and increase distress. When individuals are heavily focused on improving outcomes, they will be more likely to engage in maladaptive counterfactual thinking. Other behavior such as procrastination may lead to less effective counterfactual thinking. Procrastinators show a tendency to produce more downward counterfactuals than upward counterfactuals. As a result, they tend to become complacent and lack motivation for change.[40] Perfectionists are another group for whom counterfactual thinking may not be functional.[41]

Rational counterfactuals[edit]

Tshilidzi Marwala introduced rational counterfactual which is a counterfactual which, given the factual, maximizes the attainment of the desired consequent. For an example suppose we have a factual statement: Qaddafi supported terrorism and consequently Barack Obama declared war on Libya then its counterfactuals is: If Qaddafi did not support terrorism then Barack Obama would not have declared war on Libya. The theory of rational counterfactuals identifies the antecedent that gives the desired consequent necessary for rational decision making. For example, suppose there is an explosion in some chemical plant. The rational counterfactual will be what should have been the situation to ensure that the possibility of an explosion is minimized.[42][43]


In the case of Olympic Medalists, counterfactual thinking explains why bronze medalists are often more satisfied with the outcome than silver medalists. The counterfactual thoughts for silver medalists tend to focus on how close they are to the gold medal, upward counterfactually thinking about the event, whereas bronze medalists tend to counterfactual think about how they could have not received a medal at all, displaying downward counterfactual thinking.[44]

Another example is the satisfaction of college students with their grades. Medvec and Savitsky studied satisfaction of college students based on whether their grade just missed the cut off versus if they had just made the cutoff for a category. Students that just made it into a grade category tended to downward counterfactual think and were more satisfied, thinking it could be worse. These students tended to think in terms of "At least I." However, students that were extremely close to making it into the next highest category showed higher dissatisfaction and tended to upward counterfactual think, or focus on how the situation could have been better. These students tended to think in terms of "I could have."[45]

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Moffit, Michael L. and Robert C. Bordone (2005). The Handbook of Dispute Resolution. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 978-0-7879-7538-8
  1. ^ abcdefghiRoese, N. (1997). "Counterfactual thinking". Psychological Bulletin. 121 (1): 133–148. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.121.1.133. PMID 9000895. 
  2. ^Merriam-Webster 2018
  3. ^ abcdeRoese, N.J. & Olson, J.M. (1995). What Might Have Been: The Social Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking. New Jersey: Erlbaum.
  4. ^Markman, K.; Klein, W.; & Suhr, E. (2009). Handbook of mental simulation and human imagination. Hove, Psychology Press.
  5. ^Birke, Dorothee, Butter, Michael, and Koppe, Tilmann (Eds.) (2011). Counterfactual Thinking – Counterfactual Writing, Berlin, de Gruyter.
  6. ^Rescher, N. (1964). Hypothetical reasoning. Amsterdam: North Holland Pub Co..
  7. ^Dolezel, L. (1998). "Possible worlds of fiction and history". New Literacy History. 29 (4): 785–809. doi:10.1353/nlh.1998.0039. 
  8. ^Miller, A. (2007). "Lives unled in realist fiction". Representations. 98: 118–134. doi:10.1525/rep.2007.98.1.118. 
  9. ^Miller, A. (2009, August). Not Forthcoming. Paper presented at Dickens Universe, Santa Cruz.
  10. ^ abByrne, R.M.J. (2005). The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality. MA: MIT Press.
  11. ^Fillenbaum, S. (1974). "Information amplified: Memory for counterfactual conditionals". Journal of Experimental Psychology. 102: 88–108. doi:10.1037/h0035693. 
  12. ^Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1982). "The simulation heuristic". In Kahneman, D. P. Slovic, and Tversky, A. (eds.). Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, pp. 201–208. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  13. ^Mandel, Hilton, & Catellani, 2005[full citation needed]
  14. ^ abcdefEpstude, K.; Roese, N. J. (2008). "The functional theory of counterfactual thinking". Personality and Social Psychology Review. 12 (2): 168–192. doi:10.1177/1088868308316091. PMC 2408534. PMID 18453477. 
  15. ^Epstude, Kai; Neal Roese (2011). "When goal pursuit fails: The functions of counterfactual thought in intention formation". Social Psychology: Special issue: Limits of Intentionality: An Interdisciplinary Approach. 42 (1): 19–27. doi:10.1027/1864-9335/a000039. 
  16. ^ abMilesi, P.; Catellani, P. (2011). "The day after an electoral defeat: Counterfactuals and collective action". British Journal of Social Psychology. 50 (4): 690–706. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02068.x. PMID 21988090. 
  17. ^ abRoese, N. J. (1994). "The functional basis of counterfactual thinking". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 66 (5): 805–818. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.66.5.805. 
  18. ^Van Zomeren, M.; Leach, C. W.; Spears, R. (2010). "Does group efficacy increase group identification? Resolving their paradoxical relationship". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 46 (6): 1055–1060. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.05.006. 
  19. ^Rim, S.; Summerville, A. (2014). "How Far to the Road Not Taken? The Effect of Psychological Distance on Counterfactual Direction". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 40 (3): 391–401. doi:10.1177/0146167213513304. 
  20. ^ abScholl, A.; Sassenberg, K. (2014). "Where could we stand if I had…? How social power impacts counterfactual thinking after failure". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 54: 51–61. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2014.02.005. 
  21. ^McMullen MN, Markman KD, Gavanski I. Living in neither the best nor worst of all possible worlds: Antecedents and consequences of upward and downward counterfactual thinking. In: Roese NJ, Olson JM, editors. What might have been: The social psychology of counterfactual thinking. Erlbaum; Mahwah, NJ: 1995. pp. 133–167.
  22. ^Roese, N. J.; Hur, T.; Pennington, G. L. (1999). "Counterfactual thinking and regulatory focus: Implications for action versus inaction and sufficiency versus necessity". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77 (6): 1109–1120. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1109. PMID 10626366. 
  23. ^Epstude, K.; Roese, N. J. (2008). "The functional theory of counterfactual thinking". Personality and Social Psychology Review. 12 (2): 168–192. doi:10.1177/1088868308316091. PMC 2408534. PMID 18453477. 
  24. ^Kahneman, D.; Miller, D. (1986). "Norm theory: Comparing reality to its alternatives". Psychological Review. 93 (2): 136–153. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.93.2.136. 
  25. ^Markman, K. D.; Gavanski, I.; Sherman, S.J.; McMullen, M. N. (1993). "The mental simulation of better and worse possible worlds". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 28: 87–109. doi:10.1006/jesp.1993.1005. 
  26. ^ abWells, G.L.; Gavanski, I. (1989). "Mental simulation of causality". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 56 (2): 161–169. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.56.2.161. 
  27. ^Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1982). The simulation heuristic. In Kahneman, D. P. Slovic, and Tversky, A. (Eds.). Judgment under uncertainty: heuristics and biases. pp. 201–208. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  28. ^Girotto, V.; Legrenzi, P.; Rizzo, A (1991). "Event controllability in counterfactual thinking". Acta Psychologica. 78: 111–133. doi:10.1016/0001-6918(91)90007-M. 
  29. ^Byrne, R.M.J. (2007). "Precis of The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality". Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 30 (5–6): 439–453. doi:10.1017/S0140525X07002579. PMID 18321404. 
  30. ^Johnson-Laird, P.N.; Byrne, R.M.J. (2002). "Conditionals: a theory of meaning, pragmatics, and inference". Psychological Review. 109 (4): 646–678. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.109.4.646. PMID 12374323. 
  31. ^Byrne, R.M.J. (1997). Cognitive processes in counterfactual thinking about what might have been. The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Advances in Research and Theory. Vol 37. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. pp. 105-154.
  32. ^Dixon, J.; Byrne, R.M.J. (2011). "Counterfactual thinking about exceptional actions". Memory & Cognition. 39 (7): 1317–1331. doi:10.3758/s13421-011-0101-4. 
  33. ^McCloy, R.; Byrne, R.M.J. (2000). "Counterfactual thinking about controllable actions". Memory & Cognition. 28 (6): 1071–1078. doi:10.3758/BF03209355. 
  34. ^Byrne, R.M.J.; McEleney, A. (2000). "Counterfactual thinking about actions and failures to act". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 26 (5): 1318–1331. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.26.5.1318. PMID 11009260. 
  35. ^Walsh, C.R.; Byrne, R.M.J. (2007). "The effects of reasons for acting on counterfactual thinking". Thinking and Reasoning. 13: 461–483. doi:10.1080/13546780701382120. 
  36. ^Byrne, R.M.J.; Segura, S.; Culhane, R.; Tasso, A.; Berrocal, P. (2000). "The temporality effect in counterfactual thinking about what might have been". Memory & Cognition. 28 (2): 264–281. doi:10.3758/BF03213805. 
  37. ^Walsh, C.R.; Byrne, R.M.J. (2004). "Counterfactual thinking: the temporal order effect". Memory & Cognition. 32 (3): 369–378. doi:10.3758/BF03195831. 
  38. ^Olson, J. M., & Roese, N. J. (2002). Relative deprivation and counterfactual thinking. In Walker, I. and Smith, H. J. (Eds.). Relative deprivation: Specification, development, and integration. pp.  265–287. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  39. ^Markman KD, Miller AK (2006). "Depression, control, and counterfactual thinking: Functional for whom?". Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 25 (2): 210–227. doi:10.1521/jscp.2006.25.2.210. 
  40. ^Sirois, F.M. (2004). "Procrastination and counterfactual thinking: Avoiding what might have been". British Journal of Social Psychology. 43 (2): 269–286. doi:10.1348/0144666041501660. 
  41. ^Sirois, F. M.; Monforton, J.; Simpson, M. (2010). "If only I had done better": Perfectionism and counterfactual thinking". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 36 (12): 1675–1692. doi:10.1177/0146167210387614. PMID 21041524. 
  42. ^Marwala T (2014). "Rational Counterfactuals". arXiv:1404.2116. 
  43. ^Marwala, T. (2014). Artificial Intelligence Techniques for Rational Decision Making. Springer-Verlag.
  44. ^Gilovich, T; Madey, Medvec (October 1995). "When less is more: counterfactual thinking and satisfaction among Olympic medalists". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 69 (4): 603–610. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.69.4.603. 
  45. ^Medvec, Victoria; Kenneth Savitsky (June 1997). "When doing better means feeling worse: The effects of categorical cutoff points on counterfactual thinking and satisfaction". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 72 (6): 1284–1296. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.72.6.1284. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *