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.
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…”
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.
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.
What is an example of counterfactual thinking?
Upward counterfactual thinking means thinking about how things would have turned out better if you’d made different choices. For example, you might make the causal inference that you’d be better off today if you’d gone to college for a different major or married your college sweetheart and that you ended up with the less desirable outcome.
Downward counterfactual thinking means you think about how things could have turned out worse. You might think about how you made the right decision when you changed jobs a few years ago or moved to a new city.
Is counterfactual thinking good or bad?
Counterfactual thinking can be good or bad. People who engage in this kind of thinking approach things from a different point of view, which can encourage mental stimulation and creativity and be more proactive in their ongoing behavior. Imagining how things can get worse can help you feel thankful for how things did turn out. On the downside, counterfactual thinking can lead to resentment for things that have happened in the past or rumination about how they could have done things differently. From a functional perspective, reflecting on things that happened in the past can be a good way to help us move forward, but if negative past events impact the future, this behavior can be unhealthy.
What are the types of counterfactual thinking?
There are two types of counterfactual thinking. Upward counterfactual thinking means thinking about how things could be better if you made different choices. Downward counterfactual thinking means that you’re thinking about how things could have turned out worse. Both counterfactual possibilities can be a way to explore what could have been.
Other types of counterfactual thinking are additive and subtractive. Additive counterfactuals focus on things you could have added, like, what would have happened if I took that trip to Europe? Subtractive counterfactuals refer to thinking about things you could have taken away; for example, what if I had stopped drinking ten years ago?
What are the characteristics of counterfactual thinking?
Counterfactual thinking can have multiple characteristics, depending on the type. Upward counterfactual thinking can lead people to think about what they missed out on and wonder, “If only I’d done things differently.” Downward counterfactual thinking is slightly different, as it can lead people to think about how much worse things could have been. Counterfactual thinking can lead to challenges. In some cases, a counterfactual statement can cause people to fixate on things to distract them from everyday life, have a negative affect or negative mood, beat themselves up about the past, or worry about things that never happened.
Why is counterfactuality important?
Counterfactuality can be important as a way to look at things from a different perspective. Creating mental models may help you try new approaches to problems in the future and find more meaning in important life events. At the same time, there can be disadvantages as, according to norm theory, counterfactuality can lead to rumination and make it difficult to move on from a challenging situation.
What is the importance of counterfactual reasoning?
Counterfactual reasoning occurs when people imagine alternatives that are different from the outcomes that actually happen. Thinking of counterfactual possibilities can help us better understand what’s going on and motivate us to make better choices in the future. But it can also lead to problems moving on from decisions we made in the past.
Is counterfactual thinking intentional?
Counterfactual thinking can be intentional, which means that it can also be controllable. If you are experiencing counterfactual thinking interfering with your daily life or making it difficult to move on or make decisions, talking to a therapist about these negative emotions can help.
What is true about counterfactual thinking?
Counterfactual thinking can be positive or negative. On the one hand, counterfactual conditionals can help us analyze our past decisions based on the outcomes, good or bad, which can inform our decision-making in the present and future.
What is counterfactual example generation?
Counterfactual example generation is a statistical model related to machine learning and AI. In this sense, counterfactuals address what-ifs in machine learning, attempting to address the outcomes of different actions, which can help debug machine learning models and teach them to react appropriately to different inputs.
What is counterfactual thinking in psychology today?
Counterfactual thinking in psychology today is the same mental simulation as it was in the past: people create alternatives to the decisions they made and the consequences of those decisions. Creating mental representations about how things would have gone differently if you’d made a different decision, good or bad, can help you think critically about other decisions you make. But, a counterfactual scenario can also lead to rumination and dwelling in the past. If you are having a difficult time with past decisions or making decisions today, talking to a therapist can help.
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