“What if?” “If only.”
Updated: Oct 21, 2018
Power of Counterfactual Thinking
What if I had confessed my feelings to him? We would surely be together now. If only I had studied better, I would have definitely scored higher marks.
I would love to think all day about different scenarios that make my life better, some through their virtue of presence and others through their much sought after absence.
This tendency to think “what if?” and “if only!” is referred to as counterfactual thinking. We imagine different possibilities and outcomes of situations that have already happened.
Doesn’t this seem like a recipe for disaster? I am dealing with so many struggles, and now the freedom of imagination for more blame and regret. Or, can this be a golden opportunity where I experience happiness and relief for how well (or not bad) things turned out in reality?
Let’s delve into this concept a little more to understand the power of counterfactual thoughts in our daily life.
There are three common types of situations during which we as humans tend to think “what if?” Firstly, during bad, troublesome events, like failing in an exam or not getting a job. You would like to imagine what if the contrary had happened and if you had passed that Math exam or got that designation of a Manager. Secondly, during events that almost happened, like your favourite batsman getting out one run before a century or you barely getting out alive from an accident. And thirdly, when you experience events that are unexpected, such as suddenly getting fired from a job or your girlfriend breaking up with you.
Is visualizing, “what might have been?” a mere process of over thinking and a waste of time?
Research tell us that this inclination to imagine possibilities emerge as early as at the age of 2. It has the ability to affect and change how we feel and see situations in our lives. It motivates us to consider alternate realities and helps us cope with various events.
Let’s discuss four ways in which counterfactual thinking can be used to our advantage to lead a more productive and happy life.
1. Avoid bad outcomes: Counterfactual thoughts make us draw a connection between an action and a result to identify what led to a bad outcome. This helps us prepare for the future and ensure we don’t repeat our mistakes. You fell ill after eating at a restaurant and you wish you hadn’t. Here you believe that the food at the restaurant (cause) made you sick (effect). By stating not to eat there, you are trying to ensure you don’t fall ill in the future.
Cautionary: It is important to note that such cause-effect relationships are real and rational. If you fell ill because you forgot to wash your hands after playing, then avoiding food from a specific restaurant proves unhelpful.
2. Higher expectations of self and increased performance: Tendency to imagine better possible outcomes is more when a task is likely to repeat. Learning from past experiences makes us better equipped to deal with the future. This process of thinking increases our subsequent performance, at the cost of briefly putting us in a bad mood. It shows that we expect more from ourselves. The standards by which we assess and evaluate our future outcomes is enhanced.
For eg: “I took a job paying me 25K to be a trainee, what if I had taken a job with a higher pay scale and better designation?” This can leave you feeling dejected temporarily. But looking at your professional experience and qualifications, you believe you are worth more. This will ensure you work harder to prove your worth at your current job, prepare more confidently for future interviews and aim towards a better opportunity.
Cautionary: Imagining outcomes worse than reality, reduces our subsequent performance but increases our temporary mood. We may face immediate relief but are not motivated for self-improvement. For eg: you may compare your financial status with those who are at a lower economic stratum. This can leave you feeling happy and content but may not encourage you to strive to greater heights. It lowers the standards by which you assess future outcomes.
3. Positive perception of people: Communicating better alternate outcomes of a situation to others can lead these individuals to see you in a more positive manner. It increases motivation and performance on a similar task in the future. So, the ability to prepare for the future and scope for self-improvement is passed on from the person imagining such outcomes to the receiver hearing about them. For eg: telling your friend how he shouldn’t settle for a certain job/partner as he can do better, may elicit your friend to perceive you in a more positive manner.
Cautionary: Conveying worse possible outcomes doesn’t significantly help to improve others' perception of you. So telling your friend he can do a lot worse and he should be happy with his current job title/partner, is bound to lead to fights and arguments.
4. Effective goal achievement: Imagining possible courses of action increases the likelihood that we choose decision making strategies that match our basic attitude, belief and feelings (orientation). The level of motivation is increased and we are more likely to achieve our goal if our strategy matches our orientation. If one feels right about it, the positive impact transfers to subsequent choices, decisions and evaluations. This increases the likelihood of submitting a report on time by 50%.
Individuals who focus on progress, achievement, ideals and aspirations develop and follow strategies that help them get to desirable outcomes, better than the actual outcome. An approach-oriented plan works better for them. For eg: This type of student is more likely to do well in an exam, by mentally simulating a plan to ask more questions, take down notes and study for more time.
Individuals focusing on security, prevention and responsibilities are more likely to rely on strategies that help them avoid outcomes, less favourable than the actual outcome. An avoidance-oriented plan works better for them. For eg: This type of student is more likely to perform well in an exam by focusing on sleeping more, going out less and avoiding usage of phone/laptop (for social media).
Cautionary: Ensure you employ strategies that match your orientation. Mismatch results in poor performance.
Thus, counterfactual thoughts can help you to avoid bad outcomes, increase self-expectations and performance level, be perceived in a more positive light and achieve goals effectively.
Counterfactual thoughts can make us feel better about our current reality, help us distribute blame and responsibility, motivate us to go on with our life, and remind us to count our rainbows and not the thunderstorms. But at the same time, it can result in us living in a world of “what if” never satisfied with what we have, always envying alternate realities, and never feeling happy with our accomplishments and lifestyle.
It is crucial to identify scenarios from your own life where you can utilize counterfactual thinking to your benefit and alter or avoid it in circumstances where it hinders your efforts at coping with reality.
Many of us tend to daydream about making our mark in this world of over 7 billion people, establishing an identity for ourselves and making a difference in the lives of those around us. Perseverance, resilience and determination can go a long way and counterfactual thinking has the potential to take us in that path by giving us the courage and motivation to move ahead and dream big, even though it hasn’t happened just yet.
Baron, R. A., Branscombe, N. R., Byrne, D., & Bhardwaj, G. (2009). Social Cognition. Social Psychology. India: Pearson Education.
Markman, K. D., Klein, W. M., & Suhr, J. A. (Eds.). (2009). Handbook of imagination and mental simulation.