Ever wonder what would have happened if a specific event did not occur? Or how it could have been completely different if we had acted or said something else?
You know situations like this crush we had in our teens. Shy and a bit goofy, we remained silent, taking good care not to reveal our feelings. But even years later, we cannot help but wonder what would have happened if we had opened up?
What if it was reciprocal?
Maybe we would have gone out together.
Maybe we would have started living together.
Maybe … and from a single tweak, we imagine a completely different life.
The French author Albert Camus gives a fascinating definition of life, being the “sum of all your choices”. Obviously, some are better than others, and reflecting on the ones we made is only natural.
When we ponder on what could have been, we engage in a specific thought process called “counterfactual thinking”.
The expert in social psychology and decision making, Dr. Neal Roese, extensively studied this type of thinking.
He explained that when we envisage how things could have been worse, like “I’m so happy to only have my car damaged in this accident. If I was just going a bit faster, I could have been injured”, we perform “downward” counterfactual thinking. This leads to an increased sense of relief , optimism , and even gratitude. In short, it makes us feel better.
On the contrary, when we explore what we could have done better (“upward” counterfactual thinking), like “if I had studied more for this test, I would have had better grades”, we most often generate guilt, regrets and can end up blaming ourselves .
So, it could be tempting to avoid this kind of thinking and its associated negative effect, but that would be detrimental to us. In fact, researches proved that “upward” counterfactual thinking is an amazing adaptive mechanism that allows us to understand where we have made a mistake in order to avoid repeating it in the future .
And one Disney movie, “The Lion King” explains this notion perfectly.
Simba, the heir to the throne, blames himself for the death of his father. He left his native land for years in an attempt to hide and forget his guilt. When finally found by the monkey Rafiki, his wise mentor offers him a life-changing piece of advice.
As Simba opens up, explaining he fears to go back and face his past, the baboon hits him on the head with a stick.
“What was that for?!” yells the lion. “It doesn’t matter, it’s in the past”, tells the sage.“But it hurts!” objects Simba, to which Rafiki answers magnificently.
Following these words, the monkey attempts to hit the lion once more, but this time Simba avoids the attack, proving the point that “we can learn from our past” and become better.
Now, knowing what needs to be done but not acting on it doesn’t make us better. Knowing we should study more to get better grades is one part of the process, but if we actually don’t study, this is useless.
Worse, excessive counterfactual thinking can increase worries and keep us in a state of negative affect, with a serious impact on our mental health .
There is an absolute need to balance our thinking with actions, to understand when we have reflected enough and that it is time to do.
Right after the second attack from Rafiki, the monkey asked Simba: “what are you going to do now?”. Astutely, the fierce lion grabbed the stick to throw it away (to prevent another strike), before running toward his native land. Past his pondering, wiser from his learning, he took action and became the King he was destined to be.
When we balance thinking and doing, we walk the path leading to personal growth.
Finding of the month
When we receive an email informing us we didn’t get the job we applied for, we automatically reflect on our past interview, searching for the reason why we were not successful. Usually, there will be one thing that will stand out.
“If only I had lowered my salary expectations, I would have had the job.”
But could it have been something else?
Did we “sell” ourselves well enough so it becomes a no-brainer to hire us? Or we could have called our HR friend prior to the interview, to have his insights on the package we could have bargained for.
One of the biggest challenges with upward counterfactual thinking is that it often narrows our focus on a single element and we set aside all other possible sources of improvement. We only see one reason why it didn’t work out the way we expect, neglecting other possible causes.
In an excellent Harvard Business Review piece, Dr. Neal explains that pushing ourselves to imagine more than one alternative for improvement is key to efficiently leverage our counterfactual thinking.
Read the article here and discover 4 more tips to optimize the benefits of counterfactual thinking.
Sharing of the month
Counterfactual thinking is a thought experiment, where we develop assumptions from our past experiences and test them with our actions.
The same principle applies to future decisions. When we think of different possibilities, we have hypotheses but no certainty.
Thomas Carlyle beautifully wrote: “Doubt, of whatever kind, can be ended by action alone.” So, in order to gain complete certainty, we must trade all possibilities but the one we choose to act upon.
But we fear missing the “best” one.
And this leads us into a trap, where we believe that if we delay our decision (and thus doing), we can gather, through our thinking, additional information to maximize our benefits.
What we often fail to realize is that we “purchase” this additional thinking. It is not free, we pay it with our time. Consequently, the real question to maximize benefits is – does the value of the information gained higher than the one of my time spent?
And like many things in life, the answer is: “it depends.”
Staying too long planning and researching might cost us the opportunity whereas jumping ship without some reflections is asking for trouble. So, a good rule of thumb is to balance thinking and doing.
And if you want to know more about this, watch my video: “Open The Box And Beat Uncertainty.”
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- Sweeney K. and Vohs K. D., 2012, “On near-misses and completed tasks: the nature of relief”, Psychological Science
- Barnett M. D. and Martinez B., 2015, “Optimists: it could have been worse; pessimists: it could have been better. Dispositional optimism and pessimism and counterfactual thinking”, Personality and Individual Differences
- Walsh N. and Egan S.M., 2018, “Things Could Have Been Worse: The Counterfactual Nature Of Gratitude”, 26th AIAI Irish Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science
- Roese N.J., 1994, “The Functional Basis Of Counterfactual Thinking”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
- Epstude K. and Roese N.J., 2008, “The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology