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The Benefit of Counterfactual Thinking

Counterfactual thinking enhances mood and performance.

It took you three weeks to gather the nerve to ask your boss for a raise–and three seconds for her to respond with a firm "no." For days afterwards you ponder what went wrong: "If only I had been more assertive, she would have given me that raise."

Your spouse might call this sulking, but psychologists have another term: counterfactual thinking. And research suggests that "If only. . ." thoughts might actually be beneficial, boosting our spirits and preparing us to do better in the future.

Whether they do so depends on their type. "Downward" counterfactuals acknowledge that things could have been worse--"If I hadn't asked for the raise so politely, I would have been fired"--and thus can make us feel better. Neil J. Roese, Ph.D., a psychologist at Northwestern University, asked students to describe an exam on which they had done poorly, and then to write down counterfactuals of a particular type. Students assigned to construct downward counterfactuals later said that they felt less disappointed about their test score than did other subjects.

In another type, additive counterfactuals, the "if" part introduces a new element to what occurred: "If I had brought a copy of PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, I wouldn't have been bored as I waited for the bus." While additive counterfactuals don't improve mood, they may improve future performance. In another experiment, students un-scrambled words against the clock. Next each student wrote down one or more counterfactuals, and took another anagram test.

Nearly all subjects improved the second time, but those asked to generate additive counterfactuals increased their score far more than others. Why? One possibility is that we incorporate the worthwhile ideas expressed in upward-additive counterfactuals into "scripts"--blueprints for future action. Or, by presenting the possibility of a brighter future, some types of counterfactuals may simply motivate us to try harder next time.

Roese says that counterfactual thinking "seems to help us get a sense of what's going on, give meaning to our lives, and get a better perspective on things." If he's right, we can all feel less guilty about reflecting on what might have been.