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Counterfactual Thinking

“There are ever so many ways that a world might be;
and one of these many ways is the way that this world is.”

Counterfactual means, literally, contrary to the facts. The term counterfactual thinking refers to a set of cognitions involving the simulation of alternatives to past or present factual events or circumstances. Within a few short years, research on counterfactual thinking has mushroomed, establishing itself as one of the signature domains within social psychology. This sudden popularity is easily understood. Counterfactual thinking is something familiar to nearly everyone. Even if they have not previously heard the term “counterfactual,” people instantly recognize it, once it has been defined for them, as something with which they are intimately acquainted. Few indeed have never regretted some action nor yearned to have avoided some circumstance. But it is the childlike wonder with which we gaze upon “what might have been,” into realms of possible, alternative worlds, which truly underlies the excitement of counterfactual research.

Counterfactuals are mental representations of alternatives to the past and they produce consequences that are both beneficial and aversive to the individual. These apparently contradictory effects are integrated in a functionalist model of counterfactual thinking. Research is reviewed supporting the assertions that

a) counterfactual thinking is activated automatically in response to negative affect;

b) the content of counterfactuals targets particularly likely causes of misfortune;

c) counterfactuals produce negative affective consequences via a contrast effect mechanism and positive inferential consequences via a causal inference mechanism.


The difference between indicative and counterfactual conditionals can be illustrated with a pair of examples:

  1. If Oswald did not shoot Kennedy, then someone else did.
  2. If Oswald had not shot Kennedy, then someone else would have.

The first sentence is an indicative conditional that is intuitively true. The second is a counterfactual conditional that is intuitively false (or at least not obviously true).


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