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Counterfactual thinking

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Counterfactual thinking is a term of psychology that describes the tendency people have to imagine alternatives to reality. Humans are predisposed to think about how things could have turned out differently if only..., and also to imagine what if?. Counterfactuals are conditional prepositions, containing an antecedent and a consequence (e.g., If Matt had run, he would have caught the bus.)


Counterfactual literally means, contrary to the facts. A counterfactual thought occurs when a person modifies a factual antecedent and then assesses the consequences of that mutation. 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 antecedents could have been different, that is by imagining a counterfactual conditional, where the consequence is preceded by the conditional, beginning with “if” e.g., if only I hadn't been speeding... or the same even if I had been going slower.... People can imagine alternatives that are better or worse than reality, e.g., 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 (Roese & Olson, 1995). Counterfactual thoughts have been shown to produce negative emotions, however they may also produce functional or beneficial effects (Roese, 1997). These counterfactual thoughts can affect people's emotions, such causing them to experience regret, guilt, relief, or satisfaction, their social ascriptions such as blame and responsibility, and their causal judgments (Markman, Klein, & Suhr, 2009).


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. 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 (Roese & Olson, 1995). The well known philosopher Nicholas Rescher (as well as others) has written about the interrelationship between counterfactual reasoning and modal logic.[1] The relationship between counterfactual reasoning based upon modal logic may also be exploited in literature or Victorian Studies, painting and poetry.[2][3][4] 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.[5][6] 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.[7] 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 (Mandel, Hilton, & Catellani, 2005). Social psychologists have studied cognitive functioning and counterfactuals in a larger, social context (Roese & Olson, 1995).

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 (see Epstude & Roese, 2008). As research developed, a new wave of insight beginning in the 1990’s 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 (Epstude & Roese, 2008).

Types of Counterfactual ThinkingEdit


Based on the Social Comparison Theory, a counterfactual may be upward or downward. An upward counterfactual involves comparing the present outcome to a better outcome, telling you how to get ahead (e.g., If I took the job, I would have made more money) whereas a downward counterfactual compares the present outcome to a worse outcome, informing how to keep things from getting worse in the future (e.g., If I went to a different school, I would be making less money) (Epstude & Roese, 2008). Upward counterfactuals are more frequent than downward counterfactuals (Roese, 1997).


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) (Epstude & Roese, 2008). Additive counterfactuals are more frequent than subtractive counterfactuals (Roese et al., 1999).

Self vs. OtherEdit

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 (see Roese, 1997).

Theories of Counterfactual ThinkingEdit

Norm theory Edit

Kahneman and Miller (1986) proposed the norm theory as a theoretical basis to describe the rationale for counterfactual thoughts. 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 (Roese & Olson, 1995). 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 (Markman et al, 1993).

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 (Wells & Gavanski, 1989). The more mutable the antecedents of an outcome are, the greater availability there is of counterfactual thoughts (Roese & Olson, 1995). 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) (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982). This mutability, however, may only pertain to exceptional cases (i.e, car accident) (Wells & Gavanski, 1989). Controllable events (i.e., intentional decision) are typically more mutable than uncontrollable events (i.e., natural disaster) (Girotto et al., 1991). 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.[8][9] Experiments show that people tend to think about true possibilities, rather than false possibilities, and they tend to think about few possibilities rather than many [10] 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.[11] 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,[12][13] actions rather than inactions,[14][15] and more recent events rather than earlier events in a sequence.[16][17]

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 (Walker & Smith, 2002). 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 (Markman & Miller, 2006). 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 (Sirois, 2004). Perfectionists are another group for whom counterfactual thinking may not be functional (Sirois et al., 2010).

Psychological Processes behind Goal-Directed Actions Edit

Context-motivated Edit

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; Epstude & Roese, 2008). 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 (Milesi & Catellani, 2011; Roese, 1994).

Markman et al. (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 (1993). Furthermore, additive counterfactuals have shown greater potential to induce behavioral intentions of improving performance (Epstude & Roese, 2008). Hence, counterfactual thinking motivates individuals into making goal-oriented actions in order to attain their (failed) goal in the future.

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 (refer below for discussion on 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(Milesi & Catellani, 2011; Van Zomeren, Spears, Fischer & Leach, 2004).

Affect-motivated Edit

According to Epstude and Roese (2008), individuals experience affect when there is a discrepancy between outcome and salient ideal alternative outcome. Affective contrast can lead to positive or negative mood, depending on the type of counterfactuals used (upward/downward). When they experience negative affect such as guilt and anger, they will attempt to minimize discrepancy in order to avoid negative mood. Hence, individuals are motivated to take actions to attain their goal (salient ideal alternative outcome; Roese & Hur, 1997).

While there is little literature on how counterfactual thinking leads to group-based emotions at present, Milesi and Catellani (2011) found an association between counterfactual thinking and group identity. As past research has shown that group-based emotions are strongly related to group identity, future research should examine the role of group-based emotions in relation to counterfactual thinking and group identity.

In Popular CultureEdit

In the fourth season of the CBS comedy series The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper and Amy Farrah Fowler develop a game called 'Counterfactuals' which is based on changing one accepted state of the universe and postulating the answer to a question based on such a change. For example: "In a world where Rhinoceroses are domesticated pets, who wins the Second World War?"


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