Avoiding What Might Have Been

Avoiding thoughts about how things could have been better

Posted Jun 05, 2008


Thinking about how things could have been, possible outcomes that did not happen but can be imagined, are known as counterfactual thoughts. Upward counterfactuals are mental simulations of better possible outcomes. Downward counterfactuals have the focus on how things might have been much worse. Both forms have emotional and behavioral consequences.

On the one hand, upward counterfactuals may make use feel bad as we think about how things might have gone better. On the other hand, we might learn more effective strategies for success through this reflection - if only I had done X, maybe next time. We benefit from these thoughts. Similarly, downward counterfactual thoughts may benefit us simply by improving our mood. Despite our lack of success, we can take solace in the thought that it's not as bad as it could be.

Individual differences seem to play a role here. For example, individuals with high self-esteem make more downward counterfactuals (it could have been worse) in response to negative events, possibly reflecting a self-enhancement strategy and mood repair. This preference for downward counterfactuals in response to negative events or moods is seen by some psychologists as a self-enhancement motive, a means to repair negative mood induced by an unpleasant outcome. Of course, chronic self-protective downward counterfactuals may be dysfunctional, because it may also serve to decrease the likelihood that the individual will learn ways to improve behavior.

Based on the research done on counterfactuals, Fuschia Sirois (University of Windsor) conducted a study to explore the possible relationships between counterfactual thinking and that well-known self-defeating behavioural style - trait procrastination. As you may recall from previous blogs about mood regulation, procrastination is associated with active attempts to regulate the immediate mood (e.g., "Giving in to feel good") and to protect or enhance self-concept (e.g., "Delay as a self-handicapping strategy"). Fuschia reasoned that these links between procrastination and self-enhancement may also make procrastinators prone to downward counterfactuals after negative events.

Her Research
Eighty undergraduate students participated in her study by responding to two anxiety induction scenarios. These participants were instructed to read a scenario depicting threatening events leading to an uncertain outcome. They were to vividly imagine the events as if they were happening to them. One scenario described a health-related situation involving delay in seeking consultation about an odd-shaped mole on a shoulder that was noticed after extensive exposure to the sun. The second scenario involved uncertainty related to coming home to find one's home threatened by fire from a neighboring house fire. Both scenarios involved anxiety and uncertainty, but the first one clearly related to needless delay or procrastination.

Although there were other elements to her procedure, the key thing is that participants were instructed to generate counterfactuals as the kind of "if only" or "at least" types of thoughts they had when reading the scenario. They were asked to list as many as came to mind, but their time was limited to five minutes.

The Results
"As expected procrastination uniquely predicted making more downward and relatively fewer upward counterfactuals . . . whereas self-esteem did not . . . This suggests that the association between procrastination and making more downward counterfactuals and relatively fewer upward counterfactuals may be related to self-enhancement motives (mood repair) in response to self-concept threat that is specific to procrastinating behaviour" (p. 278).

"When faced with the anxiety-provoking situations, procrastinators tended to focus on how the situation could have been worse but was not (downward counterfactuals) perhaps to avoid distressing thoughts about how things may have been better (upward counterfactuals), and to restore positive mood through the generation of downward counterfactuals. Thus, mood repair in general may be a way for procrastinators to escape or avoid their unpleasant state, a conclusion that is inline with research suggesting that procrastination is linked to avoiding rather than dealing with stressors" (p. 279).

The implications of this study
This is clearly another example of "short-term gain, long-term pain." As noted above, the preference for downward counterfactuals as a mood-regulating strategy may lessen the potential for recognition of the ways to correct future behavior. In other words, procrastinators never consider how more timely action might mitigate the problems procrastination has created. Focusing on how things were not as bad as they could have been may engender a sense of satisfaction and even complacency that may undermine motivation for change. As Fuschia notes, "Rather than be admonished by the consequences of their behaviour, procrastinators may focus on how outcomes could have been worse but were not, and are therefore able to preserve a positive sense of self" (p. 280). That is, for the moment, of course.

As Fushia sums it up, "This trade-off of immediate affective benefits for loss of preparative insights for future behaviour and decreased motivation to change may, in the case of procrastinators, perpetuate the very self-regulation difficulties that characterize these individuals" (p. 280).

Concluding thoughts . . .
An insight we each might develop based on the results of this study is to question how much we are relying on downward counterfactuals. Although we might need to bolster a failing sense of self in the face of disappointment by considering how "it could have been worse," we must now also recognize that over-dependence on this strategy might undermine our ability to deal more effectively with similar situations in the future. As with expressions like, "I'll feel more like it tomorrow" or "I work better under pressure," we now need to add "It could have been worse" to our list of "flags" that should signal to us that we're making an excuse and potentially deceiving ourselves in a costly manner.

Sirois, F.M. (2004). Procrastination and counterfactual thinking: Avoiding what might have been. British Journal of Social Psychology, 43, 269-286.