Counterfactual Thinking: What if Things Had Been Different?

January 26, 2020
With each decision you make, you close some doors and open others. If you want to continue moving forward, you have to learn and keep going. If you fail to do this, you'll probably end up in a rut.

What if I’d decided to study abroad? And what if I hadn’t broken up with my boyfriend/girlfriend? What would’ve happened if I’d accepted that job offer? One of the mental tasks human beings spend the most time on is imagining alternative timelines. Through counterfactual thinking, we try to imagine how reality would be if we’d made different decisions.

Doing this exercise can sometimes be beneficial. Nevertheless, obsessing yourself with mentally exploring alternative options can have negative consequences. Frustration, bitterness, or anxiety can become a part of your life if you’re not careful. Thus, you have to learn to accept your reality and live in the present.

A man with glasses possibly engaged in deep counterfactual thinking.

What’s counterfactual thinking?

Throughout your life, you make certain choices. Some are mundane, while others are more critical. With each decision you make, you close some doors and open others. Yet it’s almost impossible for people to avoid, at some point or another, thinking about how things might have been. What if you’d picked a different path? This is precisely what counterfactual thinking refers to. It’s about projecting alternative realities that may have arisen from different decisions.

Through it, you can delve into the past and create an array of scenarios. You can then compare those scenarios to your current situation. It’s also possible for you to apply this type of reasoning to future situations. For example, you might say: “If I leave this job, I probably won’t find anything better. I might even end up unemployed“.

The possibilities are endless. At the root of this process, you have the belief that your minor decisions have shaped your life. This assertion is partially true, as your present situation is the result of all your past actions. Moreover, your current decisions are indeed going to influence your future. Nevertheless, no single decision constitutes a sentence. You have the power, at any moment, to change the course of your life.

The benefits of counterfactual thinking

This cognitive process has some benefits as long as you use it in moderation. First of all, it helps you learn from the mistakes of the past. Thus, it increases your ability to plan out better decisions. When you’re faced with a dilemma that you’ve already faced before, you’ll have the experience to predict certain events. Therefore, experience can be a starting point for better decision-making.

Consider this example. Suppose you failed an exam in the past because you didn’t study enough. Surely, you had thoughts such as: “If I’d studied more, I would’ve passed the test.” Through this type of thinking, you’ll behave differently under similar circumstances in the future.

On the other hand, it can also help you feel better about your accomplishments. For example, “If I hadn’t moved to the city, I would’ve never met my best friend”. Additionally, it helps you get some respite from negative situations. For example, “If I hadn’t had my seat belt on, the accident might’ve been much worse”.

A man in front of two forks representing different decisions.

Focusing on the present

Still, if you lose sight of the utility of counterfactual thinking, you could find yourself immersed in it. This is especially true if you use it constantly. You might start to feel negative emotions due to some of your past decisions. There might be guilt, regret, and frustration. For example, “If I’d paid more attention, our friendship wouldn’t have ended“. Alternatively, “If I hadn’t gotten married so young, I would’ve been able to enjoy life more”.

You should keep in mind that counterfactual thinking can serve as a roadmap for your future. However, it should never be an anchor to your past. If you feel that you didn’t act correctly in certain life situations, try to rectify your mistake. You can consider it a learning experience for future situations. In one way or another, consider it a starting point for building the future you want. Avoid considering it an emotional burden.

Likewise, constantly thinking about the future can cause anxiety. It might also bring you stress and even a paralyzing indecisiveness. The truth is that you can’t predict the future.

The past no longer exists and the future is a mystery. Focus on accepting your present, learning its lessons, and giving the best of yourself. Only then will you be able to forge the future you want. Remember that mistakes are a part of life. Don’t forget that you make your own path. Finally, keep in mind that you’ll always have new opportunities.

  • Segura-Vera, S. (1999). Razonamiento contrafáctico: la posición seriel y el número de antecedentes en los pensamientos sobre lo que podría haber sido.
  • Martínez Betancourt, P. A. (2011). Influencia de los objetos de autorregulación y el pensamiento contrafáctico sobre los efectos persuasivos de un mensaje publicitario (Bachelor’s thesis, Bogotá-Uniandes).