Back to Looking Back

Updated: Feb 14, 2019

This is a follow up of my first article on counterfactual thinking and using it to our advantage. If you recall, it refers to the ability to imagine “what if?” and think of alternate outcomes of past events. In this piece, I would like to introduce you to a few more concepts revolving around this topic.

Counterfactual mindsets can be additive where we tend to add antecedent factors to recreate reality. For eg: If I had made flash cards and rehearsed, then my presentation would have gone better. This activates a style of processing in our mind that increases our ability to pay attention to concepts and improves our performance on tasks that require creating new ideas. It can be subtractive where we tend to subtract antecedent factors to recreate reality. For eg: If I didn’t sleep so late last night, my presentation would have been better. This tends to benefit decision making accuracy and facilitate creative association.

You read in the newspaper that a woman has lost her jewellery while walking home from a shop. You may draw a causal relationship between the victim’s carelessness and loss of jewellery, or state that the victim shouldn’t have walked alone in the dark. Now what if you were to directly witness the situation or be involved in it yourself? If that were the case, you may mention that the victim could have called the police if they had a phone, or tried to remember the vehicle number of the accused, to ensure retrieval of the jewellery.

In accordance to the above scenario, research shows that the manner in which individuals receive information about an event, impacts their thought processes about its alternatives. The same situation can elicit varying counterfactual alternatives by those directly involved in a situation and those actively observing it, compared to those only reading about it. Thus, the roles individuals play in a situation can determine the counterfactual content.

Think about the judgements you have made about other people and their actions, to what extent would it have been altered if you were involved in it yourself?

If we are constantly exposed to imagining outcomes worse than reality, it eventually increases our threshold to show moral outrage. This is an alarming finding that can shed light on our outlook and laws toward the rape culture in India. As a country, we seem to have become more and more tolerant and accommodating of the various horrendous rape cases taking place around us. Behaviours that were immoral and unethical in the past are becoming acceptable now as we have reassessed our scales of moral standards. We are priding ourselves in the very few cases where the accused are convicted. What was initially heard and recorded as rare cases has become a norm now. We have begun to forget what is ethical and moral and have gone onto feeling relieved that we are not on the receiving end of such unspeakable crimes.

In a research study, participants read about a 1942 football game where Boston College was highly favoured to win but they lost to Holy Cross. Post the loss, Boston College players did not go to Coconut Grove nightclub for a party. Half of the participants were told that 500 people died because of a fire at the club. These participants concluded that Holy Cross was meant to win. The remaining participants who did not read about the fire did not make such a conclusion.

Rationally speaking, the fire (an event) that took place after the Holy Cross victory (target event) couldn’t increase the chances of the victory (target event) taking place. But motivated sense making (an effort to figure out the relationship between people, places, and events to anticipate their effect and act accordingly) and magical thinking (assumptions that are not rational) led people to believe that fate and determination played a role in the turnout of events that day.

This form of thinking appears to be predominant in many of our cultures considering the importance given to superstitions and justification for occurrence of events, by stating that were “meant to happen.” For example, you never miss a flight but on the one day that you do, you find out that the plane crashed and there were no survivors. You may believe that you missed the flight to survive.

To conclude, we have discussed about the nature of counterfactual mindset, the difference in counterfactual content and judgements, the impact on our moral outrage and finally the role of fate and determination. The more I read and research about counterfactual thinking, I am amazed about its prevalence and influence in our lives.

#counterfactualthinking #mindset #lookingback #creativity #blame #morality #fate #sensemaking #outcomes #reality #alternate


Biernat, M., & Ma, J. E. (2005). Stereotypes and the Confirmability of Trait Concepts. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(4), 483–495.

Klein, G., Moon, B., & Hoffman, R. (2006). Making Sense of Sensemaking 1: Alternative Perspectives. IEEE Intelligent Systems,21(4), 70-73. doi:10.1109/mis.2006.75

Markman, K. D., Klein, W. M., & Suhr, J. A. (Eds.). (2009). Handbook of imagination and mental simulation.

Reuters. (2018, April 19). Speedy justice for rape victims? More than 133,000 cases pending. Retrieved from


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