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Understanding counterfactual thinking

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

5 practical ways to overcome negative emotions and irrational thoughts

There is a joke I remember from my childhood. I went something like this.

A young boy missed his bus and had to run all the way home. When he finally arrived, he excitedly told his dad, "I saved $3 by running behind the bus today!" His dad replied, "You should have run behind a taxi, you could have saved a lot more!"

As a child, I simply found the joke funny. Only much later in life, when I learned about the concept of counterfactual thinking, I started to understand its full significance.

What could have been

Counterfactual thinking is the tendency of the human mind to imagine alternative outcomes or scenarios that could have happened if events had unfolded differently. Put more simply, it is the process of asking "what if?" questions about past events.

We imagine how things could have been different if we had made different choices or things had turned out differently.

Psychology widely acknowledges counterfactual thinking as a natural and common aspect of human cognition. It tends to happen mostly unconsciously and can have significant effects on our decision-making, emotional experiences, and social perception. We all engage in counterfactual thinking at some point in our lives. We imagine how things could have been different if we had made different choices or things had turned out differently. This is not necessarily a bad thing - unless it leads to negative emotions and irrational thoughts.

The unhappy silver medalist

Imagine a scenario where two people arrive late at the train station and miss their trains. One person misses their train by just five minutes, while the other misses theirs by half an hour. Even though the outcome is the same for both - they both missed their trains - the person missing their train by five minutes tends to feel worse about it. Being only a few minutes late makes it much easier to imagine being on time.

Another interesting example illustrating counterfactual thinking comes from observing athletes on the podium when they receive their medals. Analyzing the athletes' facial expressions, studies have shown that bronze medalists appeared happier than silver medalists. Why is that? The answer lies in counterfactual thinking.

Let's consider the bronze medalist; they’re simply happy being awarded a medal. Their point of comparison is not with the gold medalist, but with the possibility of walking away with empty hands. On the other hand, the silver medalist compares themselves to the gold medalist. They may be disappointed or feel regret; just a fraction of a second faster and it would have been them on the top of the podium.

Imaginging a better or worse outcome

The athletes’ example nicely illustrates the two main types of counterfactual thinking:

The silver medalist is engaged in upward counterfactual thinking; they are imagining and comparing themselves to a better alternative state. The bronze medal winner on the other hand is engaged in downward counterfactual thinking; they imagine a worse potential outcome and compare their actual situation to that worse outcome.

While downward counterfactual thinking can have positive effects such as learning from past experiences and improving future decisions, it's easy to see that upward counterfactual thinking can lead to feelings of disappointment, regret, and even envy, as individuals focus on what they could have achieved but did not. These negative emotions often lead to further negative consequences, such as rumination and decreased motivation to try again.

So what can you do to overcome upward counterfactual thinking? Here are five practical ways you can try.

5 tips for overcoming counterfactual thinking

1. Reframe the situation: Look for the positives in a situation that didn't go as planned. For example, if you missed out on a job opportunity, consider what you learned from the experience and how it can help you in the future.

2. Focus on effort, not outcome: Rather than evaluating yourself solely on the outcome, focus on the effort you put into a task. Did you work hard? Did you learn something? Celebrate your effort and growth, rather than just the end result.

3. Practice gratitude: Focusing on what you have, rather than what you don't, can help you appreciate your achievements and feel more satisfied with your current situation. Each day, make a list of three things you're grateful for.

4. Challenge your assumptions: Consider whether your counterfactual thinking is based on realistic assumptions. Ask yourself whether the alternative scenario you're imagining is truly feasible.

5. Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness can help you stay grounded in the present moment and reduce negative thoughts about the past or future. Take a few minutes each day to bring your attention to the present moment. A simple and effective way to do this are breathing exercises, like box breathing or 4-4-8 breathing.

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