Counterfactual Thinking: 10 Examples and Definition

counterfactual thinking examples and definition, explained below

Counterfactual thinking refers to the cognitive process of imagining alternatives to events or situations that have transpired.

It can be beneficial in some limited circumstances, such as when reflecting on an event in order to learn from past mistakes. However, it can also lead to negative outcomes, especially when people fixate on errors and live in the past.

chrisMeet your Teacher: This article was written by Dr. Chris Drew (PhD), a university professor who teaches education studies. The article was peer-reviewed by Dr. Kamalpreet Singh. Learn more about Chris Drew here

Counterfactual Thinking Definition and Key Concepts

Counterfactual thinking involves thinking through “what if” scenarios to imagine alternatives to the current course of events (Byrne, 2017). It involves the exploration of alternate timelines or possibilities.

In everyday life, it most commonly occurs when a person is reflecting on a mistake or missed opportunity. For example, you might think back and say “if only this happened, my life would be so much different now” (De Brigard & Parikh, 2019).

In such circumstances, we are using it to cope with negative experiences (such as personal regret or disappointment in how something turned out) by imagining how things could have gone differently if only something different were to occur (Epstude & Roese, 2008).

However, all too often, counterfactual thinking does not help us to cope, but rather causes us to fixate and involves our minds trying to construct narratives that position the protagonist as the victim.

10 Examples of Counterfactual Thinking

Personal Life Examples

  1. The Missed Job: If someone missed a job opportunity, they may imagine scenarios where they had gotten the job and how their life would be different.
  2. The Car Accident: If someone gets into a car accident, they may imagine different scenarios where they could have avoided the accident, such as if only we’d reacted a split second quicker, our child didn’t cry at that very moment, or we took a different route to work that day.
  3. Career Choices: I often wonder what would have happened if I had chosen a different major in college. Would I have ended up in a completely different career, with more money, or simply less happy.
  4. Acting Against Instinct: We often regret moments where we make a decision against our better instincts. We might be operating “with the head instead of the heart”. This inner conflict will inevitably leave open to asking “what if..” questions.
  5. True Love: When a relationship ends, we often reflect on whether we could have done something differently to rekindle the romance or do more to ensure the relationship stayed alive.
  6. The Injury: Similarly, when we get a chronic injury, we’ll often reflect on if only we had skipped that day in the gym, then we’d be stronger now and more capable of tackling physical tasks.
  7. The Startup Venture: Entrepreneurs often wonder what could have happened if they had pursued a different business idea or if they had chosen a different partner, believing that they might have been more successful or faced fewer challenges.
  8. The Relocation: People who have moved to a new city or country may think about what their life would be like if they had stayed in their hometown or chosen a different location. They might imagine having a different job, set of friends, or overall lifestyle.
  9. The Missed Flight: If someone misses a flight, they might imagine how their trip would have been different if they had caught the plane on time. They could think about the meetings or experiences they missed out on and how it might have impacted their life or career.
  10. The Delayed Education: Someone who has put off pursuing higher education may wonder how their life would be different if they had continued their studies earlier. They might imagine having a higher-paying job or more job security.
  11. The Passed-Up Promotion: If someone turns down a promotion at work, they might later think about what could have happened if they had accepted it. They could wonder if it would have led to a more fulfilling career or a higher salary.
  12. Parenting Choices: Parents may question their decisions, such as choosing a certain school for their child or how they disciplined them. They might imagine how their child’s life would be different if they had made alternative choices, like enrolling them in a different school or employing a different parenting style.
  13. The Unspoken Apology: When a conflict arises and is left unresolved, individuals may wonder how the relationship would have been different if they had apologized or communicated more effectively. They might imagine a stronger bond or reduced tension between them and the other person.
  14. The Investment Decision: Investors may reflect on their financial choices, questioning what would have happened if they had invested in a different stock or asset. They might imagine a higher return on investment or an improved financial situation.
  15. The Safe Choice: Individuals who have abandoned their hobbies or passions may wonder how their life would be different if they had continued to pursue those interests. They could imagine a career in that field or the personal satisfaction they might have derived from it.

Productive Uses of Counterfactual Thinking

1. Self-Reflection for Better Decision Making

The key benefit of counterfactual thinking is its ability to stimulate self-reflection for future improvement upon performance (Kahneman, 2014).

By reflecting upon key moments as ‘forks in the road’ in a series of events, people can identify the exact moments where they need to change their own performance in order to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

For example, if a business owner made a decision that led to loss of revenue, they can engage in counterfactual thinking to explore alternative decisions that may have minimized the chances of revenue loss. This, in turn, can help them to refine their decision-making processes in the future.

See Also: Self-Reflection Examples

2. Design Improvements

Similarly, counterfactual thought can be of use when pinpointing design weaknesses following a failed physical design.

For example, a student may build a bridge out of sticks that ends up collapsing. While watching the bridge collapse, the student identifies a specific weakness in the bridge design. They can then imagine if the design were changed to solve that issue, what would be the end result.

3. As a Teaching Tool

Counterfactual thinking is also an effective teaching tool (Henne, Kulesza, Perez & Houcek, 2021). A teacher, coach, or mentor, might use prompting language such as open-ended questioning to encourage this type of thinking.

For example, a teacher might present a prompt such as:

  • “Imagine your ideal outcome. What would the path to that outcome have looked like?”
  • “Let’s focus on that mistake you made half-way through. What would have been different if you had made a different decision at that point?”

These sorts of prompts can encourage students to focus on the pivotal moments in a performance of thinking process and ensure they make well-thought-out decisions at those moments.

Unproductive Uses of Counterfactual Thinking

1. Fixation

People who focus extensively on counterfactuals end up fixated on regrets. This can impede future progress and even be detrimental to mental health.

Similarly, counterfactual thinking necessarily involves engaging in hypotheticals. Usually, we cannot truly know what could have happened because by definition that eventuality has never eventuated (Roese & Olson, 2014).

For example, consider a person who is fixated on a counterfactual course of events where they got a job (which, in reality, they didn’t get because they were late to the interview). We may imagine that it was regrettable that she missed the train to that job interview (De Brigard & Parikh, 2019). However, there is no knowing whether, if she had gotten the job, she would truly have been happy with that course of events.

2. Paralysis by Analysis

While counterfactuals can make life easier if we take action based on our visualizations, it can also lead us to endless analysis of the past, with no actual changes in behavior. We might call this ‘paralysis by analysis’.

When individuals are constantly thinking about what could have been, it can be challenging to make decisions in the present (De Brigard & Parikh, 2019).

In such instances, counterfactual thinking can lead to indecisiveness, as you might be so busy thinking about “what if’s” for a range of decisions that you can no longer make a choice! This can also be known as the ‘paradox of choice’.

3. Misjudgment of Probabilities and Outcomes

Counterfactual thinking can lead to unrealistic judgments, especially when we fantasize about unrealistic outcomes, or overestimate the likelihood of alternative outcomes.

This type of thinking can lead to inappropriate decisions and unrealistic expectations, which will likely lead to disappointment and a spiral of more counterfactual thought (Henne, Kulesza, Perez & Houcek, 2021).

For example, suppose your counterfactual course of events were your ideal events. These ideal events may never actually happen. In fact, our ideal life rarely pans out that way. We need to leave room for self-forgiveness and acceptance.

Counterfactual Activities for Students

chrisActivity 1: A useful way to explore counterfactual thinking can be to look at historical events and consider alternative outcomes. Below, I’ve provided some historical counterfactual questions for you to consider. 
  • What if Abraham Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated? Would reconstruction have gone differently?
  • What if Germany had won World War II? Would the world be a completely different place?
chrisActivity 2: In English class, we might also ask students to write an alternate ending to practice counterfactual thinking. Consider the following examples. 
  • What if Voldemort had killed Harry Potter instead? How would Hogwarts have changed?
  • What if Darth Vader had never turned to the dark side? How would the Star Wars universe be different?
  • What if Neo had chosen the blue pill in The Matrix? Would he have lived a normal life?

Conclusion

Counterfactual thinking is a powerful cognitive tool for exploring different possibilities and outcomes. It can lead to better decision-making, enhanced problem-solving skills, and increased creativity and innovation. However, it has a lot of negative potentialities, because it often leads to unrealistic expectations and fixations on “what ifs”. But by using counterfactual thinking constructively and appropriately, we can improve our perspective and decision-making skills.

References

Byrne, R. M. (2017). Counterfactual thinking: From logic to morality. Current Directions in Psychological Science26(4), 314-322. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721417695617

De Brigard, F., & Parikh, N. (2019). Episodic counterfactual thinking. Current Directions in Psychological Science28(1), 59-66.

Epstude, K., & Roese, N. J. (2008). The functional theory of counterfactual thinking. Personality and social psychology review12(2), 168-192. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868308316091

Henne, P., Kulesza, A., Perez, K., & Houcek, A. (2021). Counterfactual thinking and recency effects in causal judgment. Cognition212, 104708. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2021.104708

Kahneman, D. (2014). Varieties of counterfactual thinking. In What might have been (pp. 387-408). New York: Psychology Press.

Roese, N. J., & Olson, J. M. (Eds.). (2014). What might have been: The social psychology of counterfactual thinking. New York: Psychology Press.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

Website | + posts

This article was co-authored by Kamalpreet Gill Singh, PhD. Dr. Gill has a PhD in Sociology and has published academic articles in reputed international peer-reviewed journals. He holds a Master’s degree in Politics and International Relations and a Bachelor’s in Computer Science.

1 thought on “Counterfactual Thinking: 10 Examples and Definition”

  1. Thank you for writing this article. It is extremely relevant to material we are currently covering in my Social Psychology class at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois. I have referenced your very clear and well-written article on my class’ Bulletin Board, and included a Link to this website.

    Again, thank you.
    Earl

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