Have you ever caught yourself thinking what would have happened if …? You know, this little voice that runs in the back of our head and paints different scenarios of past events.
Like, what would have happened if we had thought of this particular anecdote during the interview?
Or, what would have happened if we had said what we genuinely thought to our manager when she made this rude comment?
We travel our past.
We find ourselves in the same spot we were. But this time, there is a change at the beginning of the script, and suddenly we can imagine a whole new story.
Undoubtedly, the interviewer should have been agreeably surprised by our remark. Our manager would have stopped immediately, realising how witty and confident we can be.
Psychologists call this cognitive ability — counterfactual thinking. They also demonstrated that, on average, we think more about situations that could have been better than the ones that could have been worse¹.
We want to rewrite the past to make our future better.
But if we could go back in time, should we alter anything? What if a slight tweak results in massive changes?
The mathematician and meteorologist Lorenz illustrates this concept with his renowned “butterfly effect”. He stated that the variation in the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could be enough to transform a breeze into a tornado in Texas.
It is also a common trope used in “time-travelling” movies and series, whereby changing the past led to unforeseen consequences.
For instance, in Stephen King’s novel “11/22/63”, the main protagonist attempts to improve the world by preventing the assassination of President Kennedy, which eventually led to nuclear war.
So, if changing the past is not helpful, is there a use to counterfactual thinking?
It turns out there is one, according to scientists. Thinking of what could have been better creates negative feelings, especially regrets², from which we can learn. The negative affect signals us that we should not repeat this behaviour for our own sake. And if used correctly, this can be an exceptional evolutionary advantage.
But there is a condition to benefit from our “what-if” scenarios.
We must not dwell for too long on our foregone possibilities, or we will end up stuck with our thoughts. Instead, we have to walk a fine line between thinking of our past and taking action for our future.
Balancing thinking and doing; that’s how we grow and thrive.
One of the advantages of thinking of “what could have been” is visualising alternative realities.
And this mental ability can be pretty powerful.
Dr Pascual-Leone, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, conducted a medical imaging study of our brain that held stunning results.
His team asked two groups to practice a piano exercise with their right hand. One group was physically practising while the other visualised themselves performing the notes on the keyboard. Both groups rehearsed for five days, each day for two hours.
The brain imaging of the students who physically practised showed an expansion of their motor cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for controlling the right-hand fingers, and this result matches our own experience, whereby practice makes us better.
Yet, the most surprising part was that the mentally exercised students got comparable results in improving their performance and expanding their motor areas³.
Under these conditions, it is not surprising to see so many high-performance athletes embracing visualisation techniques to improve their performances.
Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic swimmer and holds the baffling number of 28 medals. In an interview (see here for more details), he explained that his goggles started to fill up with water during one of his races, making him virtually blind.
He swam 175 meters, including two turns, without seeing the pool’s walls. One would think it would have impacted his performance, but it didn’t. Instead, he ended up winning gold and breaking a world record.
And when asked how he did it, he explained that he relied on his visualisations of the race.
If counterfactual thinking presents advantages, we must remain cautious when using it.
Like kids learning they should not get too close to a flame because it burns, these mental time travels can teach us valuable lessons.
Once we understand fire can hurt, we integrate this new knowledge and keep our distance from it. We do not stick too close, nor do we put our hand into the furnace.
But when we travel in our past, imagining all these different possibilities that could have occurred, we can fall into a self-perpetuating loop where we ruminate on our past and cannot stop feeling regretful².
So reflecting on how to avoid getting burned is not enough; stepping back from the fire is an active part of our learning journey.
Lighting a fire might not be the only solution if we are cold. We could also close the windows, turn on the heater, or wear an extra sweater.
To find out what works best for us, not only do we need to be able to think of these different possibilities, we need to try them out. This is an essential step to shift our focus from what was done to what could be done.
Here is one of my videos that explores the concept of lost and renewed opportunities. If you want to know more, you can watch it here.
PS: If you are interested in working with me, workshops in your company, or for your own personal development, you can book an introduction call using this link => https://calendly.com/lison-mage/introduction-call
- Roese, N.J., 2017, “The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking: New Evidence, New Challenges, New Insights”, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology
- Epstude K. and Roese N.J., 2008, “The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
- Pascual-Leone, A., 1995, “Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of new fine motor skills”, Neurophysiology