The Psychology of "What If"

Going back in time, or “counterfactual” thinking, can have mixed outcomes.

Posted Sep 04, 2018

Sirtravelalot/Shutterstock
Source: Sirtravelalot/Shutterstock

Sometimes when we look back, we think about how things could have been better:

  • If only I had gotten that part in that play when I was in high school . . . then I would have gotten into that great theater program at the Ivy League school, and then…
  • When my boyfriend in college transferred to a school across the country, he and I were through. I really wish that never happened — my life would be so much better if I were still with him…
  • I wish had taken that other job instead of this one when I was in my 20s. I have no idea what I was thinking. My life would be 100 percent better now if only I had done so…

We call this “upward” counterfactual thinking (see Studer, 2016), and it can be pretty depressing.

Sometimes when we look back, we think about how things could have been worse:

  • Looking back, thank goodness I ended up majoring in secondary education. I love teaching high-school kids, and I just love traveling each summer. In retrospect, this was the perfect job for me!
  • Every day, I am grateful that I left my husband and ended up with Harold. The divorce was stressful, and things were tricky for a while, but looking back, I would have been miserable now if I’d stayed with that bum.
  • I am so glad that I chose to move to California on a whim when I was in my 20s! At the time, it seemed like a crazy idea. Now I have a great family and great job — and I surf five days a week. Best decision I ever made!

We call this “downward” counterfactual thinking (see Studer, 2016), and it can actually be pretty uplifting.

The Benefits of Downward Counterfactual Thinking

Various studies have found that downward counterfactual thinking tends to be more associated with psychological health compared with upward counterfactual thinking (see McMullen & Markham, 2000). In cases in which downward counter-factual thinking leads to negative feelings, people are motivated to take productive actions. And when downward counterfactual thinking leads to positive emotions, people feel a degree of life satisfaction. So looking back is not all bad.

In a recent study that explored counterfactual thinking in the context of intimate relationships, Lauren Studer (2016), an alumna of our graduate program in psychology, found that downward counterfactual thinking in intimate relationships was associated with relatively positive relationship outcomes, such as relationship satisfaction (a result that parallels a past finding from my own research team’s work; see Geher et al., 2005).

Interestingly, she also found that women were more likely than men to engage in relationship-specific, downward counterfactual thinking. In other words, women were more likely than men to reflect on how past relationships are best off dissolved. Men seem to engage in less of this kind of thinking.

The Benefits and Costs of Upward Counterfactual Thinking

Upward counterfactual thinking can have some benefits. If you didn’t study for an exam, and then you bombed it, you may well think about this fact the next time that you have an exam scheduled. And this all may well motivate you to study effectively next time.

This said, upward counterfactual thinking is often associated with a pessimistic style (“If only I had never done that!”). And in a relationship context, it has been found to correspond to relatively low levels of relationship satisfaction (see Studer, 2016). So going back and thinking about how you really messed something up is not really a great formula for happiness and satisfaction in life.

One Direction

Rumination is a hallmark sign of depression (see Keller & Nesse, 2006). In the context of counterfactual thinking, rumination can be thought of as the large-scale and constant employment of upward counterfactual thinking in one’s psychological life. When such thinking, characterized by an “I really messed up” mentality, comes to permeate one’s daily psychology, negativity follows.

If you find yourself in this kind of upward-counterfactual thinking trap, you really should take steps to get out of that trap and move forward. At the end of the day, whatever you did years ago, the past is the past, and time only moves in one direction. Of this, we can be sure.

Bottom Line

To some extent, your life can be thought of as the sum of the choices you have made. Of course, some choices are better than others. Looking back at past decisions (i.e., engaging in counterfactual thinking) is only natural in humans. And, as described above, it’s not all bad. That said, if you find yourself living too much in the past and largely focusing on things that you could have done better, you probably, as hard as it may be, want to come up with ways to move on and focus on the present and on the future. After all, this is a one-way ride. And the trip is brief.

References

Geher, G., Bloodworth, R., Mason, J, Stoaks, C., Downey, H.J., Renstrom, K.L., & Romero, J.F. Motivational Underpinnings of Romantic Partner Perceptions: Psychological and Physiological Evidence (2005). Journal of Personal and Social Relationships, 22, 255-281.

Keller, M. C., & Nesse, R. M. (2006). The evolutionary significance of depressive symptoms: Different life events lead to different depressive symptom patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 316-330.

McMullen, M. N., & Markman, K. D. (2000). Down ward counterfactuals and motivation: The wake-up call and the Pangloss effect.

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(5), 575-584. doi:10.1177/0146167200267005

Studer, L. (2016). If I had never met you: Counter-factual thinking in relationships. A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the master’s degree for the SUNY New Paltz Master’s program in Psychology.