SINGAPORE - After something has happened, or an outcome is known, people often think about how things could have turned out differently. They imagine what it could have been.
This typically occurs when they wish something had or had not happened. They think counterfactually to reality by thinking "If only…" Counterfactual thinking also occurs when people imagine how things could have been worse. These thoughts often begin with "If I had…" or "If I had not…"
Counterfactual thoughts are widespread in personal life, at the workplace and in politics. It occurs when we think about what we or others have done, or not done.
Psychological research tells us a lot about counterfactual thinking. This knowledge is useful for improving our own lives and the lives of others.
Counterfactual thinking is ubiquitous
It is human to think counterfactually. Counterfactual thinking occurs in all areas of life, and more often than we realise.
It occurs when we regret doing something - "If only I had driven home by the usual route, I would not have been caught in the traffic jam."
The regret can also be over not doing something - "If only I had read that news article, I would have answered the question correctly."
We think counterfactually when we are upset or assign blame. Here is a common refrain from advisers - "If he had followed my suggestion, we would have prevented this public outcry."
Counterfactual thinking also occurs when we feel relieved or grateful. After a workplace incident, employees may think that if the company had not implemented safety measures, there would have been fatalities in the incident.
Often, counterfactual thinking is used to help people console others or themselves. Accident victims may feel better when they imagine that the outcome could have been worse.
When are people more likely to think counterfactually?
Research has identified four factors. They are ease, closeness, exception and controllability.
First, counterfactual thinking is more likely when it is easy to reconstruct the past event and imagine alternative situations that did not happen.
The second is when the actual outcome is close to an alternative outcome. That is why "near-misses" are powerful.
When students missed a mark to get into the next higher grade category, or when they just made a grade with the lowest mark in the grade category, the "what it could have been" scenario produces strong emotions and actions. And gamblers know what it is like to miss the winning combination by one number.
Third, if the negative outcome is perceived to be due to an exceptional action that is non-routine, it leads to powerful counterfactual thoughts that last longer and recur more.