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Why We Can't Stop Thinking About "What Might Have Been"

The blessing (and curse) of counterfactual thinking.

Key points

  • Counterfactual thinking—or considering "what if" questions about one's past—has both positive and negative emotional outcomes.
  • Considering that a negative event could've been much worse can help someone foster gratitude, regulate their emotions, and build resilience.
  • But counterfactual thinking in an "upward" direction—that is, focused on how the individual fell short of a goal—can trigger regret.
  • Overall, counterfactual thinking is part of human nature, and may help us identify our goals and better plan our future life course.
Brasil Creativo/Shutterstock
Source: Brasil Creativo/Shutterstock

How many times have you wondered about the proverbial “road not taken” and tormented yourself with fantasies of how much better things might have been had the younger you made different decisions? Or, on the flip side, have you breathed a sigh of relief when you recognize that one of your lucky choices enabled you to dodge a bullet and end up much better off than you might have been, had things gone a different way?

This type of mental “what-ifism” is called counterfactual thinking , and it is the birthplace of emotions such as regret, gratitude, and guilt. Picturing an alternative outcome to what has actually happened in one’s life holds an irresistible appeal, even when it leads to unhappiness. It is therefore not surprising that the imagination of an alternate life has been the inspiration for dozens of movies including "It’s a Wonderful Life," "Sliding Doors," "Mr. Destiny," and the entire "Back to the Future" franchise. It is also not surprising that it has become a hot topic of research in social psychology.

And the more important the event in question is, the more intense our counterfactual thinking about it will be. What would my career have been like if I had accepted that job offer in a far-off state rather than playing it safe and sticking with what was familiar? What if I had married that long-lost lover who I broke up with over what now seems to be something trivial and silly? What if I had been more vigilant before my child was badly hurt in an accident?

Counterfactual thinking often plays out in real-time on national television after a natural disaster. Following a flood, tornado, wildfire—or some similar calamity—news reporters frequently interview survivors who have barely escaped with their lives. The victims are usually shaken and highly emotional, and they have often lost everything that they owned and they may be financially ruined as well. And yet, we commonly hear them use words such as “lucky” or “grateful” to describe their feelings, and they may even publicly thank God for looking out for them!

At first glance, these responses do not make much sense. If the person had really been lucky and if God really had been looking out for them, wouldn’t they still have a house and have been spared from all of the grief they must now endure? Some psychologists have argued that one of the benefits of counterfactual thinking is that it can be an effective tool for regulating our emotions and making us more resilient. As terrible as their current situation may be, the mind of the counterfactual thinker can easily imagine circumstances that would have been even worse—paving the way for positive emotions such as relief and gratitude that might help them through a very dark time in their lives.

It is the ease with which we can imagine an alternative outcome that triggers the type of counterfactual thinking that we engage in. A classic study of Olympic athletes demonstrated how counterfactual thinking can be both a blessing and a curse. It turns out that silver medalists are often very unhappy about their remarkable achievement, but bronze medalists are not. The reason for this is that the silver medalist is engaging in “upward” counterfactual thinking; it is easy to see how close he or she came to being the champion, only to fall short. The bronze medalist, however, thinking counterfactually in a “downward” direction, sees how close he or she was to not getting a medal at all , resulting in a very different emotional experience.

For me personally, these findings ring uncomfortably true. I was a wrestler in high school and college, and I finished second or third in a number of different tournaments. My experience was the same as that of the Olympic athletes interviewed in the aforementioned study. When I finished third, it meant that I had won my last match and made it onto the medal stand, and I usually felt pretty good about my accomplishment. Perversely, when I placed second, it meant that I had lost my last match, felt a championship slip away from me, and I felt like a loser . Finishing second is a higher level of success than finishing third, but it sure doesn’t always feel that way.

I frequently see this play out in less dramatic ways in my students. For example, when a student receives a B+ in one of my classes, there is a good chance that I will have a conversation with an unhappy student afterward. The student recognizes that a B+ is almost an A, and with a little bit of luck, maybe that “A” could have happened. The disappointment often motivates the student to make an appointment with me to find out just how close they were to a higher grade.

I rarely have conversations like this with a student who has received a C-.

The C- student can easily imagine a scenario in which the grade could have been a D, or even an F, and consequently may feel relieved or even pleased with the grade they received. Even though a B+ is a much better grade than a C-, our emotions do not always fall in line with the logic of the outcomes.

It appears that we cannot help ourselves. Counterfactual thinking is simply part of who we are, and even though it sometimes makes us sad, it can also do us some good. In addition to the emotional regulation function discussed earlier, many psychologists also believe that it exists to helps us crystallize the goals that are most important to us and to improve our ability to wisely choose future courses of action.

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