What Might Have Been and What Could Be

Thoughts about what might have been can change meaning and prompt action

Posted Jun 14, 2013

Although time machines don’t exist (I’m still holding out hope), people engage in a form of time travel all the time. Except rather than happening in a cool vehicle with blinking lights and a guy with frizzy white hair standing nearby, it occurs in the recesses of our minds. Whenever you think back to that time in high school when you planned on having a party when your parents weren’t home but accidentally left the invitation in the copy machine and then had to embarrassingly cancel the party (wait, that didn’t happen to everybody?), or imagine what might occur in the future once you finally win the lottery (a more relatable example, perhaps?), you’re engaging in what psychologists call “mental time travel.”

There are different types of ways that we can engage in such time travel. On the one hand, it can be pretty straightforward: you can think back to the past and relive some event occurring (e.g., a job interview you went to in 2005). Or, you might go through what is known as “counterfactual reflection” and think about what might have been, rather than what was (e.g., what if I had bombed that interview and didn’t get the job? What would my life be like now?). And similarly, we can imagine how the future will turn out if we do or don’t engage in a certain set of actions. How such thoughts come to affect our beliefs, feelings, and behaviors has recently been examined by a few papers.

In one study, Karl Szpunar and Daniel Schacter had research participants come into the lab and go through a fairly complicated procedure. First, the participants generated 90 names of people they knew (they were allowed to consult their Facebook pages), 90 different objects that they could imagine having with them, and 90 different locations around the Boston area. The researchers then randomly combined these various things for each subject to create 90 different potential scenarios (think about one of those children’s books where you mix and match the head, body, and feet of people). A week later, the subjects came back to the lab, and were told to quickly imagine an interpersonal scenario that could arise based on the cues they were given, and were told to create an equal number of positive, negative, and neutral scenarios. The next day, the participants came back to the lab again (did these people have jobs? Oh right, no they didn’t – they were students), and were asked to re-imagine half of these possible scenarios, once, twice, and a third time. Then, later in the afternoon, they imagined these same scenarios one more time, and also imagined the other 45 scenarios one time. So, on the final day of the study, people imagined half of the scenarios 4 times and half only 1 time. People were then asked how plausible each hypothetical scenario was, and how positive and detailed they were.

Here’s the main finding: simulating a possible future event frequently (that is, four times) led people to think that it was more plausible than an event that was only simulated once. This finding, however, was only true for the positive and negative events, but not the neutral events. Moreover, the events that seemed to be more plausible were also seen as more detailed and easier to simulate. So, if you imagine a possible future occurrence more times, it seems like it will be more plausible to occur.

OK, fine, that makes sense. But, here’s an interesting twist. This finding – that things that are more frequently imagined seem more plausible – does not hold up for thinking about past hypothetical events. In a more recent paper, Felipe de Brigard, Szpunar, and Schacter had participants undergo a similar procedure to the one listed above. Here, however, the researchers had participants generate counterfactuals – that is, the participants had to think of alternatives to what had actually happened. When people more frequently simulated these counterfactuals (that is, when they imagined the counterfactuals four times), they came to believe that the alternative worlds were less plausible than if they had only imagined them once. Nonetheless, they felt that the more frequently imagined counterfactuals were in fact more detailed. So, why would these findings diverge from the findings above? The authors suggest that when we generate counterfactuals, what we’re really doing is creating an alternate world that is minimally different from the world that did occur. But the more and more we think about a given alternate world, the more detailed it becomes, and the more it eventually deviates from what actually happened, making it seem less plausible. With future thinking, on the other hand, when we create a possible scenario in our mind, there’s no definite reality to compare it to, and so it still seems like it’s likely to occur.

This finding squares nicely with research done by Laura Kray, Adam Galinsky and colleagues. Kray and her co-authors had one group of participants engage in counterfactual reflection about pivotal points in their lives (that is, they thought about what might have been), whereas another group of participants simply reflected on the pivotal moment itself (that is, they thought about what actually happened). Strikingly, across several studies, the researchers found that people who engaged in counterfactual reflection felt that their lives were more meaningful and more “meant to be.” And, in some follow-up work that I did with Galinsky and Kray, we found that counterfactual reflection about the origins of relationships, countries, and companies, actually made people feel more committed to those entities. Why? Because the research participants in our study felt that their relationships were more meaningful and fated. In light of the new work by de Brigard, Szpunar, and Schacter, it seems that thinking about past alternatives might make them seem less likely, which could subsequently strengthen our resolve to the course of events that did in fact take place.

Here’s the bottom line(s) to all of this: more frequent simulations of future hypothetical events (events that haven’t taken place) make them seem more plausible. More frequent simulation of past alternative events (that is, events that didn’t take place but could have), however, makes them seem less plausible. And, engaging in counterfactual reflection about specific past events makes life seem more meaningful and increases the sense of commitment we feel to people and organizations. This work raises the possibility that frequently simulating possible future events could make people take the actions necessary to realize those future events (because the outcomes seem more plausible). That, however, remains to be explored.