How many times we have wondered what could have been the outcome if we had done/chose something else in life with respect to our profession or our personal lives. This ‘what if’ is part of Counterfactual thinking. It is a concept in Psychology that involves the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred, something that is contrary to what actually happened. Counterfactual thoughts though have shown to produce negative emotions but can also produce functional or beneficial effects. These thoughts can affect people’s emotions. People can express regret, relief or contentment.
We feel regret/guilt when we do upward Counterfactual thinking which focuses on how the situation could have been. When a student achieves grade B instead of grade A, when an athlete gets a silver medal instead of gold-they tend to have upward Counterfactual thoughts that what 1 thing they could have done better that they could have achieved A grade or a gold medal.
When we think how the situation could have been worse, we are doing downward Counterfactual thinking. Bronze Medalists feel more contented than Silver Medalists as they are thinking how the situation could have been worse. When a student just passes his exams, he is contented that at least he has not failed. When somebody got saved in a fatal accident with minor injuries, downward Counterfactual thoughts bring a sense of relief.
Counterfactual Thinking actually helps in managing our thoughts/decisions/emotions. If a person is able to consider another outcome based on a different path, they may take that path in future and avoid undesired outcome.
It’s like if we see glass half-empty or half-full.
- Dr. Anupreet Vig, Faculty, INLEAD