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Counterfactual Thinking


Explanations > Theories > Counterfactual Thinking

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 



Counterfactual thinking is thinking about a past that did not happen. This often happens  in 'if only...' situations, where we wish something had or had not happened.

This can be so powerful we can change our own memories, adjusting the facts and creating new memories. It can happen to cover up trauma or may be just excuses to avoid facing uncomfortable truths. It can also be to explain what is otherwise unexplainable.

This effect is increased by:

  • Replication: if we can easily reconstruct events as happened or as wished for.
  • Closeness: if the unwanted event is close, such as just missing winning the lottery by one number or just missing a taxi. 
  • Exception: if the event occurred because of a non-routine action that might well not have happened ('if only...').
  • Controllability: if something could have been done to avoid the event.
  • Action: in the short term, we regret actions that cause problems more than inaction that might have the same effect (although in the longer term, this effect is reversed).

We can also do the reverse, thinking about bad things that did not happen, such as when we narrowly avoid being in an accident. Counterfactual thinking often happens around situations of perceived 'luck'.


Kahneman and Tversky offered the following scenario to a number of people:

"Mr. Crane and Mr. Tees were scheduled to leave the airport on different flights, at the same time. They traveled from town in the same limousine, were caught in a traffic jam, and arrived at the airport 30 minutes after scheduled departure time of their flights.
Mr. Crane is told that his flight left on time. Mr. Tees is told that his flight was delayed, and just left five minutes ago.
Who is more upset, Mr. Crane or Mr. Tees?"

96% of participants felt that Mr. Tees would be more upset. Just missing the flight would increase the chance of him generating the counterfactual thoughts of having caught it.


Silver medal winners do it all the time. The closeness to winning causes much regret and they need to excuse themselves for their 'failure'. In a reverse effect, Bronze medal winners often feel lucky to get a medal, as they were very close to not getting a medal at all.

Young people may regret taking a course at college that they do not enjoy. Older people will regret dropping out or not switching to the right course.

So what?

Using it

Cause tension by highlighting something about the other person that will cause dissonance, then offer a new thought that can replace the uncomfortable thought. Encourage them to accept the new thought. A neat form is 'What if you had...'.


You are human and imperfect. That's ok. Beware of people trying to change history.

See also

Attribution Theory, Cognitive Dissonance, Counter-Attitudinal Advocacy, Regret Theory


Kahneman and Tversky (1982), Kahneman and Miller (1986)


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