In Ray Bradbury’s 1952 story “A Sound of Thunder,” the protagonist returns to the Cretaceous era to hunt a Tyrannosaurus rex. The dinosaur is to be shot just seconds before he would have died from the weight of a falling tree, so nothing material should change. However, the protagonist loses his nerve, steps off the levitating path, and crushes a butterfly under his shoe. When he returns to the present (2055) he discovers that society has changed: people are meaner, spelling has altered, and a fascist now governs the country. If only he had not stepped on that butterfly. . .
“If only” thought processes have a name: counterfactual thinking. By altering in our imaginations an element of something that has happened, we can learn how to act differently in the future (If I had studied harder for that test, I would have performed better on it. Next time I’ll study harder.), or we can better appreciate what we have (It took me two hours to get home from work, but it would have been worse if I’d been the person who was injured in the car crash that tied up traffic).
This all makes sense and seems rather intuitive. What’s interesting is that the parameters people alter are predictable and intimately connected to their emotional well-being. Most people will mentally revise actions rather than inactions, causes rather than background conditions, and controllable events over uncontrollable ones. In contrast, people suffering from anxiety or depression, or those with atypical executive functioning pathways, mutate elements that are likely immutable.
Consider the following true story: When I was in college, I spent a semester studying and working in Washington, D.C. The apartment building in which I and the other students were housed sat adjacent to Rock Creek Park in a not-so-nice part of the city. One evening after work I went to the Kennedy Center to purchase a ticket to see Hal Holbrook performing a one-man show as Mark Twain, and then I took a bus back to my apartment. I disembarked at a bus stop about three hundred yards from my apartment at approximately 7:00 in the evening, i.e., after rush hour crowds had subsided. A light rain had begun. Most of the other commuters who got off the bus with me walked down the sidewalk, mostly heading north, but I chose to cross the street and then walk north. As I walked north, alone, on a dark, drizzly night, I kept my head down to keep my face dry. I was preoccupied thinking about the weather and about Hal Holbrook, an actor I’d had a crush on ever since I saw All the President’s Men where he starred as Deep Throat. Before I realized what was happening, three young men were right in front of me, and one was reaching for my purse. I held onto my purse, and another of the young men punched me in the face. The first one grabbed my purse and they fled south. The incident destroyed forever my perception of my own invulnerability.
Now, as an experiment in counterfactual thinking, there are a lot of ways this scenario could be changed. On the “grateful” side, the three boys could have dragged me into Rock Creek Park and hurt me well beyond a swollen jaw. On the “learning from the incident” side, I could have held my head up and stayed aware of my surroundings, or I could have walked on the same side of the street as the other people, or I could have handed my purse over immediately. All of these changes involve actions rather than inactions, causes rather than background conditions, and controllable rather than uncontrollable events. And, in fact, I now walk with crowds, scan the streets, avoid walking alone in the dark, and instruct my children to hand over their valuables immediately if they are approached by robbers.
On the “changes that do not serve a functional purpose” side, I could have skipped All the President’s Men in 1976, thus having no interest in Hal Holbrook’s performance. Or I could have taken a semester to study in France rather than Washington. Or I could have lived in the 1860s when there were no buses, women would not purchase theater tickets for themselves, and purse-snatching was not a prevalent crime. Or those three boys could have not been criminals. None of these imagined changes, mostly background or uncontrollable events, seem plausible, and they certainly do not provide any functional benefit as far as keeping me from locking myself permanently in a room.
When I listen to Sam, my autistic 18-year-old, her counterfactual thinking almost never fits into one of the “typical” categories. To modify her outcome she generally changes a background condition, and if she selects an event, it is usually one over which she has no control, such as the century or country in which she lives. If she lived in the 1860s, the Krebs Cycle would not have been discovered and she would have received a higher score on her biology quiz. Her counterfactual thinking rarely seems either to help her learn from past events or to experience relief or gratitude about an outcome. Why?
First of all, adolescents are a special category of people. They possess much “real” information (in contrast to children whose worlds include imaginary characters and omnipotent adults), but amazingly little ability to create valid causal connections. Anecdotes about neurotypical adolescents’ justifications for their risky behavior certainly bear this out. Magnetic resonance imaging proves that an adolescent’s pre-frontal cortex is immature. Sam is an adolescent.
Then there are the autism implications. An entire body of research examines the relationship between counterfactual thinking and autism: counterfactual thinking and theory of mind; counterfactual thinking and second order emotions; counterfactual thinking and executive functioning; counterfactual thinking and additive v. subtractive scenarios; counterfactual thinking and flexibility.
The papers are all provocative in their own ways, but for now I’m not interested in autism per se. Rather, I’m considering an almost-universal aspect of the autistic profile, which is anxiety. In contrast to the beneficial effect people derive from altering the usual elements of a scenario, counterfactual thinking in people who suffer from depression and anxiety alters less controllable elements and leads to more distress.
Research shows that people suffering from severe anxiety and severe depression ruminate over past experiences more than people identified as emotionally healthy. Ideally, people learn what they can from past experiences and move on. In fact, replaying a counterfactual scenario repeatedly usually results in the counterfactual seeming less plausible with each replay. Suppose, for example, I think back to the time in college when I did not go on a group camping trip because I had a paper due, and Joe, the guy I’d just started dating, came back from camping with a new girlfriend. I could be happily married to Joe now, 30 years later. Or could I? Replaying the college camping trip so that I participate and ultimately marry Joe becomes less and less plausible as other relevant details reassert themselves. It would have been out of character for me to put fun before an assignment (for better and worse). More importantly, Joe and his camper girlfriend eventually broke up; nothing prevented us from reconnecting . . . except a mutual lack of interest. In reality, the camping trip would not have changed the trajectory of my life.
For people with anxiety, constant replays appear to make the counterfactual less plausible, but not because the causality or the details emerge more vividly. Instead, the element that is most often changed is characterological. “If I’d been more outgoing . . .” “If I hadn’t said something stupid the way I always do. . .” Here the counterfactual outcome might seem plausible, but it depends on an implausible change of character. The logical conclusion is that the outcome in similar future events will likely be as disastrous as in previous episodes. Without a belief that I have the ability to alter my behavior or put myself in situations more conducive to my success, I am helpless.
With depression, the rumination seems even more destructive. In one study, “Participants endorsing severe levels of depressive symptoms generated counterfactuals that were less controllable, less reasonable, and more characterological in nature.” The first and third characteristics are shared with people experiencing anxiety. The second, “less reasonable,” seems to refer to things that either cannot be changed or have scant causal bearing on the outcome. “If only everybody shared my perspective, I would not feel alienated.” “If only my boss picked me for the good assignments, I could prove my superior qualifications.” In these scenarios, I have no possibility of efficacy. Other people’s opinions or behavior are not within my control.
What accounts for the nature of a person’s counterfactual thinking? Agency. For upward (how things could have been better) counterfactual thinking to be functionally beneficial, one needs a coherent story of cause and effect. Then the cause must include a personal action or decision. If this criterion is absent, it’s time to make peace with the event in a Buddhist sense of acceptance or to stay mired in it unhelpfully. Finally, an actor needs to have the ability to effect a change in future behavior. That’s a tall order.
Our counterfactual scenarios reflect our beliefs about how much control we have over our world. Sam’s anxiety can usually be attributed to her lacking a belief in her own agency. The world comes at her, often with no rhyme or reason. Even when she perceives a role for herself, she feels powerless to adjust her behavior. I suspect that her sensory processing and gross motor challenges, going back to infancy, impaired her ability to understand causality in the physical world and continue to impair her ability to identify salient information in her environment. Other individuals no doubt have different reasons for feeling disenfranchised from their own narrative.
Framing a story is an act of will. When we build a narrative (and we each have a multitude of correct narratives), we are implicitly building a story of cause and effect for our lives. I choose to blame my lack of vigilance for my mugging, because I can change that. If I chose to focus on the prevalence of crime, I would also have a valid narrative, but it would deny me any agency. It would be true, but not as useful as some other versions of the truth. Counterfactual thinking is a powerful instinct. Whether or not we grow with it is like choosing at a fork in the road. What was down that other path?