News & Trends
It's the study of what might have been: What if Dewey had defeated Truman? What if Nixon hadn't taped his conversations? More than an intellectual parlor game, counterfactual thinking, as it's known, is a serious attempt to understand how we make judgments and how we think about the past. One of its most prominent practitioners, Philip Tetlock, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and political science at Ohio State University, shares his thoughts on the phenomenon.
Why do people engage in counterfactual thinking about history?
They do it because they're compelled to. History doesn't provide us with control groups, so we have to construct them in our imaginations. In order for us to learn anything from history, we have to think about what didn't happen along with what did.
Where do counterfactuals begin?
Out of an infinity of possible events, we tend to choose those that are peculiar in some way or which deviate from expectations. Assassinations always stick out. People have often wondered what would have happened if Martin Luther King or John E Kennedy hadn't been killed. Other frequently chosen events include accidents, elections, epidemics, decisive moments in battles.