What Might Have Been: The Benefits of Counter-Factual Thinking

Thinking about how things could have gone differently helps people make sense of their lives.

Thinking about how things could have gone differently helps people make sense of their lives.

One of the mind’s great talents is to simulate events that haven’t happened. Projected into the future, our imaginative power helps us plan everything from our weekends to the construction of our homes and cities.

But when our minds turn towards the past, our ability to simulate alternative realities seems less useful. What use is it to imagine how things could have been? Do we not learn more from our pasts by analysing the reasons for either success or failure?

A recent study by Kray et al. (2010), though, demonstrates a role for thinking about what might have been that doesn’t invoke that horrible word: regret.

Instead they wonder if thinking about what might have been actually helps us make more sense of our lives.

In the first of four studies they had students think about the sequence of events that had led them to attend that particular college. Half the participants then wrote about all the things that could have gone differently. Finally, everyone completed measures of meaning and significance of events in their lives.

The results showed that those who had considered counter-factuals—how their lives might have been different—gave higher ratings to the significance of their choice to attend that particular college and to how meaningful this was in their lives.

Psychologically, then, thinking about how life could have been different, made people feel that what did actually happen was more special in comparison.

In three mores studies they confirmed this finding and looked at what mechanisms connected counter-factual thinking with meaning-making. Two emerged:

  1. Fate. Thinking about what might have been makes us feel that major events in our lives were ‘fated’. This is because counter-factuals make you more aware of all the other things that could have happened.
  2. Finding the upside. When people thought about counter-factuals, they noticed more positive aspects to the true chain of events. Many people were even able to find the upside of apparently negative events (things like: “If I hadn’t broken my leg, I wouldn’t have met my husband”).

As Kray et al. conclude:

“Mentally veering off the path of reality, only briefly and imaginatively, forges key connections between what might have been and what was meant to be, thereby injecting our experiences and relationships with deeper meaning and significance.”

Image credit: pedro veneroso

Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004.

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