What if You Hadn't Read This?

By PT Staff, published on September 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

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.

Can counterfactuals be misused?

A lot of counterfactual history is done with a political agenda in mind, and people who use it that way tend to act very confident in their theories. It's transparently obvious to conservatives that Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War, for example, while liberals are just as certain that things would have turned out the same no matter who was President. Perhaps this confidence comes from the fact that one's belief can never be proved or disproved.

What are some influences on the study of counterfactual thinking?

The "butterfly effect"--the idea that the beating of a single butterfly's wings can cause a major storm elsewhere on the globe--is a popular paradigm in computer It's a transplant from science, where simulations have shown that small causes can have very big effects. Well, if we can apply the idea to weather, why not to human affairs? People realize that there's a great deal of contingency in history.

PHOTO (COLOR): Men who were involved in our History.