Counterfactual Thinking In Real Life Scenarios

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Counterfactual thinking may sound like a complicated term, but it’s a thought pattern that many of us engage in regularly. While it can have a variety of benefits, it can also produce negative outcomes if fixated on too much. Let’s take a closer look at counterfactual thought and touch on a few example scenarios of when it can be useful versus when it can be detrimental.

What is counterfactual thinking?

This concept involves thoughts about alternatives to past events—about how things may have turned out differently, or about what might have been. These counterfactual alternatives marked by counterfactual conditions, are cognitive processes comparing reality today to decisions or events that occurred in the past.

When people engage in counterfactual reasoning they imagine outcomes that differ from those that actually occurred. This is rational imagination, which is a pattern of thinking that may take an event from everyday life and take it in a counterfactual direction. For instance, someone who gets into a car accident may think about what would have happened if they had not been texting, turned down a different road, or left a minute sooner.

Types of counterfactual thinking

There are two key types of counterfactual thoughts: upward and downward. Upward counterfactual thinking means you’re considering ways that things could have turned out better if different choices were made. Using upward counterfactuals, also called additive counterfactuals, you might imagine that you’d be happier today if you had chosen a different job, partner, or place to live earlier in your life. You might associate this type with the sentiment, “If only I had…”

Downward counterfactual thinking means you're thinking about ways that things could have turned out worse. For instance, using downward counterfactuals or negative counterfactuals, you might think about how you’d be more unhappy now if you hadn’t left your job or partner or moved to a new city earlier in your life. You might associate this type with the sentiment, “Thank goodness I…”

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The process of counterfactual thinking

A 2008 review called “The Functional Theory Of Counterfactual Thinking” breaks the process of both upward counterfactual thinking and downward counterfactual thinking down into three steps in explaining how counterfactual thinking works. Understanding them can provide insight into how this often automatic thought process really happens.

Step 1: From problems to counterfactual thinking

The entire process starts with an event and a person’s judgment of the outcome of that event. Whether they view the outcome as positive or negative may then trigger thoughts of how it could’ve gone better or worse had they made different choices.

For instance, a student who got a poor grade on a test may judge that outcome as negative. From there, they might think about how they could have studied more or gotten more sleep the night before. Or, consider someone who couldn’t find their car keys one morning and had to take the train to work instead. Upon finding out that there was an accident and a major traffic jam on their route that morning, they might judge the outcome as positive because they were able to avoid that risk, delay, and/or frustration.

Step 2: From counterfactuals to intention

The next step involves deciding on the usefulness of a particular action, which can lead to a behavioral intention. In other words, you might realize or decide that you could have done something differently to promote a better outcome. From there, you might set an intention to do that thing next time to avoid a repeated negative outcome or to ensure another positive outcome.

For instance, the student with the poor grade from our previous example might realize that they should’ve studied different material or gotten a better rest the night before the big exam. As a result, they might resolve to do so next time so they can do better on the test. The person who took the train to work might decide that this method of transportation has more benefits and fewer risks for them and resolve to take it more often.

Step 3: From behavioral intentions to behavior

This is the step where counterfactual thinking can actually have an impact on a person’s life going forward. Once they’ve set an intention to behave in a certain way next time a similar situation arises, they may follow through. Either they’ll learn that this altered behavior doesn’t end up having the effect they wanted or lead to a different outcome and potentially engage in counterfactual thinking again to come up with a new intention, or things will work out and they will have learned from the process.


Advantages and disadvantages of counterfactual thinking

Counterfactual thinking can have advantages or disadvantages depending on how it’s employed. On the positive side, those who engage in counterfactual thinking are looking at events from different perspectives, which can boost their creativity, inspire them to try different approaches in the future and be more proactive in their behavior. One study even found that those who commonly engage in it may be more likely to derive meaning from important life events. Plus, imagining how things could’ve been worse can help you feel gratitude for how they did turn out, and cognitive neuroscience research suggests that gratitude may be linked to psychological and social well-being and more positive life outcomes.

On the negative side, this pattern of thinking can also lead to feelings of self-pity and resentment. It can even make it difficult for a person to move past an experience because they can’t help but continue to ruminate on how it could’ve gone differently, which can lead to thinking about more downward counterfactuals. This is especially true when we can easily picture negative events happening again, this is called a simulation heuristic and can lead to further negative thoughts or a belief that negative events will happen. While reflecting on events that happen in our lives can be valuable, having negative past events impact future behavior may not be healthy, our ability to move forward in a healthy way also matters.

How to end a loop of negative counterfactual thinking

According to the norm theory, the further a negative event or situation is from normality the more regret a person may experience. Thinking too much about what you could’ve done differently in a particular situation can end up being harmful. Ruminating or obsessing about an event in the past that you can’t change the outcome of generally isn’t helpful and can have a negative impact on your mental health. In a situation like this, seeking the guidance of a therapist might be useful. They may be able to help you make peace with the actual outcome or realize that there is no causal link and move forward with helpful new takeaways in mind. If depression or anxiety are contributing to your difficulty in handling the outcome of a situation, they may also be able to address these conditions through behavior control and assist you in identifying strategies to manage them.

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Manage counterfactual thinking in online therapy

Some people find seeking therapy online to be a more convenient or comfortable option for them. Since research suggests that virtual therapy can be as effective as in-person sessions, those who prefer this format can receive the treatment they may need from the comfort of their own home. An online therapy platform like BetterHelp is one way to connect with a licensed therapist virtually.

When you match with an online therapist at BetterHelp, you can choose which communication format works best for you. Schedule videoconferences, make phone calls, or send text messages at the moment. Your therapist can work with you to identify goals -- such as identifying counterfactual thinking in real-time -- and hold you accountable to meeting them by pausing to examine your thought patterns or coming up with alternative meanings. Whereas it might be challenging to ask a friend to help you with such goals -- due to the potential for feeling judged -- an online therapist can serve as a neutral yet empathetic guide who is invested in your success, whatever that looks like for you.


Counterfactual thinking can be useful, but it can also bring about negative consequences if left unchecked. If you’re concerned that counterfactual thinking may be causing you problems or pain, a therapist may be able to help you work through it.

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