- In counterfactual thinking, people recall past events that they wish could have come out differently.
- New research documents the downside to this type of mental time travel but also suggests a way out.
- By using memory to your advantage, you can weave a story of your life that furthers your fulfillment.
As you think back on the significant, or maybe insignificant, events in your life, how often do you imagine a different ending than the one that occurred? Perhaps you were sitting at the dinner table with a group of your close friends when, for no apparent reason, you blurted out a secret about one of them that you had promised to keep quiet about. It was a pretty serious secret. This person had taken you into their confidence to reveal that they were about to leave their relationship. You can see from their face that your blurting this out to the group was upsetting and hurtful. Not only that, but everyone else at the table seemed shocked that you couldn’t keep this secret to yourself. It’s likely none of them will ever really trust you again, especially the person you offended.
Days, and even weeks later, you continue to ruminate about your appalling gaffe and rewrite the scenario so that in this one, you kept quiet. You know that there’s no way to unsay what you said, making your self-recriminations even more painful. Psychologists refer to this type of mental “time travel” as counterfactual thinking. When this becomes an unstoppable force in your daily life, it can become a source of emotional distress.
The Drawbacks of Counterfactual Thinking
According to Avila University’s Jared Branch (2023), there’s nothing wrong with traveling back to the past, delving into what’s called your “personal episodic memory” (i.e., recall of past events in your life). The problem arises when these become counterfactual, as prior research shows links between such type of mental reworking to depression and potentially posttraumatic stress disorder (for people remembering a traumatic event).
In terms of links to personality, counterfactual remembering is related to high scores on the traits of neuroticism (tendency to worry and be anxious) and low scores on agreeableness (warmth and kindness). The relationship with neuroticism seems to be fairly obvious. In terms of agreeableness, though, think about how reliving past events but imagining different outcomes could either make one bitter (low on agreeableness) or be a function of having a cynical attitude toward life and looking not at the bright, but on the dark side of life.
Testing Counterfactual Thinking’s Possible Causes
Branch was interested in discovering more about why people become plagued by negative counterfactual thinking about the past. He sought to not only confirm previous findings but also to expand his investigation into such traits as optimism, proneness to fantasy, and time perspective in general. Constantly living in the past, especially with a pessimistic attitude (in addition to high neuroticism and low agreeableness) could become an important force that drives counterfactual thinking.
Starting with administering questionnaires to his online sample of 143 undergraduates, Branch then went on to ask those who opted in if they would complete daily records of their thoughts in their daily lives, and 88 of the original sample completed this diary component of the study. In a second, larger sample (373 undergraduates), Branch used a single measurement session, because the diary study didn’t produce results as expected. Although he tried to obtain counterfactual thoughts in real time, the manipulation wasn’t effective, perhaps because the students didn’t completely understand the task (such as imagining how a car accident could’ve come out differently), or that the method had other flaws.
The second study introduced different questionnaires with a larger scope to assess personality and other contributions to counterfactual thinking without incorporating the daily record-keeping part of the first study. The key measures in this study were “involuntary” counterfactual thinking (i.e., being plagued by a desire to rework past events) and “voluntary” counterfactual thinking (i.e., forcing yourself to have these thoughts). Try rating yourself on the questions from each scale:
- When I am relaxing or doing routine work, thoughts about past events and ways I could have done them differently come to my mind by themselves—without me consciously trying to evoke them.
- Thoughts of how personal events could have been different pop into my mind by themselves—without me consciously trying to evoke them.
- Some locations or places bring thoughts of past events and ways I could have done them differently—without me consciously trying to remember them.
- After something surprising has happened, I spontaneously think about the ways it could have been different, without consciously trying. It just comes to me.
- Some emotions, moods, or thoughts bring thoughts of past events and ways I could have done them differently to mind—without me consciously trying to remember them.
- When I am bored, thoughts of how past events could have been different come to my mind by themselves—without me consciously trying to remember them.
- After I have experienced something that made a strong impression, I spontaneously think about how it could have been different, without consciously trying. It just comes to me.
- When I am physically active, for example walking, bicycling, or running, thoughts of how past events could have been different come to my mind by themselves—without me consciously trying to remember them.
- Listening to some music or songs brings thoughts of past events and ways I could have done them differently to mind—without me consciously trying to remember them.
- Some sensory experiences, such as some odors or tastes, bring thoughts of past events and ways I could have done them differently to mind—without me consciously trying to remember them.
- When I am bored or doing dull work, I willfully and deliberately think back to past experiences and think of ways I could have done them differently.
- After something surprising has happened, I willfully and deliberately think back to it in my mind and think of how it could have been different.
- When I am relaxing or doing routine work, I willfully and deliberately think back to past experiences and think of ways I could have done them differently.
- After an event has happened, I willfully and deliberately think back to it in my mind and try to think about how it could have been different.
- When I am listening to some music or songs, I willfully and deliberately think back to past experiences and think about how they could have been different.
Turning to the results, what do high scores on these measures signify? As Branch predicted, both were positively related to anxiety, stress, negative affect, and a tendency to engage in rumination (e.g., “What am I doing to deserve this?”). People higher in mindfulness scored lower on these measures, meaning that staying in the present may be one way out from being dragged into counterfactual thinking. People high on depression engaged in both types of counterfactual thinking, as well as those whose thinking style was classified as “emotional” (i.e., “When I’m sad, it’s often a very strong feeling.”).
Other important relationships emerging from the findings included relationships with negative emotionality, but those whose thinking was higher on voluntary were also higher on such measures as boredom and were less likely to be optimistic. Past time perspective had no relationship to counterfactual thinking, leading Branch to conclude that it “exists as a distinct category of mental time travel.” In other words, it’s fine to think back on the past, but dangers lurk when you try to rewrite it.
3 Ways to Keep Counterfactual Thinking at Bay
Knowing all the downsides to counterfactual thinking can help guide you to more rational ways to recall your own past mistakes or misfortunes.
- Take the quiz. You can use the questionnaires reproduced here to check your own tendencies and see where you could potentially turn down this overall tendency.
- Use mindfulness. Living in the present and paying attention to what’s happening in the here and now can drive out those painful events whose endings you wish were different. You can also add another component from acceptance-based approaches to therapy in which you notice those thoughts (whether voluntary or involuntary), recognize their presence, and incorporate them into the story you tell about your life. Yes, you made a mistake, or an awful thing happened, but reworking it won’t change that reality.
- Engage your future. Adding to the exit route from this unproductive mental activity can be engaging your future time-travel machinery. Imagine that you find a way to make up for that past mistake, such as your unfortunate revelation of the secret. See yourself approaching your friend and coming up with a way to make amends. Share your feelings about it and see if there’s a way to come to a mutual understanding.
To sum up, memories are an essential part of the fabric of your personality and identity. Distinguishing between the memories that help and those that impede your well-being can help you on your pathway to fulfillment.
Branch, J. G. (2023). Individual differences in the frequency of voluntary & involuntary episodic memories, future thoughts, and counterfactual thoughts. Psychological Research, 87(7), 2171–2182. doi:10.1007/s00426-023-01802-2