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Counterfactual thinking

Author: Dr Simon Moss


On some occasions, individuals contemplate the outcomes that might have emerged had they pursued another course of action. That is, they consider the possibility that some alternative outcome or event could have unfolded, called counterfactual thinking. That is, counterfactual thinking represents attempts to imagine alternatives to past events (Pennington & Roese, 2003).

Counterfactual thinking can elicit many benefits (for complications, however, see Kruger, Wirtz, & Miller, 2005). For example, when individuals initiate this form of thinking, they later become more receptive to surprising information, curbing defensive or rigid behavior. In addition, after individuals consider counterfactuals, the decisions that are reached in teams are often more considered.

Dimensions of counterfactual thinking

Upward versus downward counterfactuals

Researchers often distinguish between upward versus downward counterfactuals (e.g., Markman, Gavanski, Sherman, & McMullen, 1993;; Roese, 1994, 1997;; Sirois, 2004). To illustrate, particularly after an unfortunate event, individuals sometimes consider how their predicament could have been even graver. That is, they recognize the consequences could have been more undesirable, called a downward counterfactual. These downward counterfactuals can, at least momentarily, improve mood, because individuals feel fortunate in comparison (Roese & Olson, 1995). For example, after receiving 55% on an exam, they might feel relieved they did not fail.

Alternatively, especially after an unfortunate event, individuals sometimes consider how their predicament could have been better. That is, had some action or event been changed, the consequences might have been more favorable, called an upward counterfactual. Upward counterfactuals might not, at least initially, improve mood, but they do uncover insights or knowledge that can be used to enhance performance in the future. For example, after receiving 55% on an exam, they might feel they would have received 65% if they had slept better the night before. These counterfactuals might provoke regret (for evidence, see Leder, Mannetti, Higgins, Kruglanski, & Aiello, 2008).

Many studies indicate that upward counterfactuals, compared to downward counterfactuals, are more likely to facilitate development and progress in various contexts. For example, if individuals are more inclined to consider upward instead of downward counterfactuals, they are not as likely to procrastinate on tasks. That is, they are more likely to learn adaptive behavior from past experiences (Sirois, 2004).

Furthermore, as Wong (2010) showed, if people express an upward counterfactual, they are perceived as more understanding, trustworthy, likeable, intelligent, and open. For example, suppose a training instructor confuses some of the participants. The instructor is perceived more favorably if this person highlights how the session could have been better, with statements like "The sessions would have been if I had presented more diagrams". The instructor is not perceived favorably if this person emphasizes how the session could have been worse, with statements like "At least, because of the Powerpoint slides, some people enjoyed the training". People who emphasize how some project or behavior they implemented could have been better are perceived to assume responsibility (Wong, 2010).

Additive versus subtractive counterfactuals

Researchers also sometimes distinguish additive and subtractive counterfactuals. That is, especially after a failed venture or undesirable outcome, individuals often contemplate the outcomes that could have emerged had they acted differently. Some individuals might consider additional acts they should have conducted--the additive variant of upward counterfactuals. If they fail an exam, they might feel they should have studied the week before.

Other individuals might consider acts they did enact but should have withheld--the subtractive variant of upward counterfactuals. If they fail an exam, they might regret drinking heavily the night before.

Interestingly, as Markman, Lindberg, Kray, and Galinsky (2007) showed, additive counterfactuals are more likely than subtractive counterfactuals io enhance creativity on subsequent tasks. In contrast, subtractive counterfactuals are more likely than additive counterfactuals to enhance performance on analytic tasks--in which participants need to apply some rule, formula, or algorithm to generate one correct solution.

That is, when individuals contemplate additive counterfactuals, specific circuits in the brain, intended to unearth a diverse range of possible solutions is activated. These circuits or mechanisms enhance creativity. In contrast, when individuals contemplate subtractive counterfactuals, different circuits are activated. That is, to uncover subtractive counterfactuals, individuals must be able to apply rules or algorithms that predict the consequences of withholding some act. The capacity to apply rules or algorithms improves analytical thinking.

Furthermore, as Kray, Galinsky, and Markman (2009) illustrated, additive counterfactuals also translate to other benefits. If participants were encouraged to consider additive counterfactuals after negotiating with someone else, they negotiating more successfully during a subsequent discussion. They uncovered more creative solutions and benefited as a consequence. According to the authors, an additive counterfactual fosters a focus on potential benefits instead of possible drawbacks, perhaps diminishing rumination about past failures and orienting the attention individuals to lessons they could learn.

Concrete versus abstract counterfactuals

Counterfactuals can refer to concrete, specific actions or abstract, intangible actions. For example, if people are afflicted with sunburn, they might decide they should have worn sunscreen to avoid this problem, an example of a concrete counterfactual. Alternatively, they might decide they should have taken precautions, an example of an abstract counterfactual that could imply many different actions. As Smallman (2013) showed, concrete counterfactuals are more likely to elicit the intention of individuals to change their behavior.

For example, in one study, on each trial, participants first read a sentence that describes a problem, such as "I was afflicted with bad sunburn". Next, on half the trials, they received a sentence that describes either a concrete or abstract counterfactual, such as "I should have applied sunscreen" or "I should have taken precautions", followed by a question about whether this action is suitable. On other trials, in the control condition, they received a sentence that describes their past behavior, such as "Last week, I applied sunscreen", followed by a question about whether this statement is accurate. Later, these participants completed a final task that assesses their intentions, in which they needed to decide the likelihood they will undertake various acts in the future, such as "apply sunscreen".

Relative to abstract counterfactuals, concrete counterfactuals were more likely to affect the intentions of participants. For example, participants exposed to the concrete counterfactual "I should have applied sunscreen" were more likely to form the intention to execute this act than participants exposed to the abstract counterfactual "I should have taken precautions".

Self versus other counterfactuals

Usually, individuals form counterfactuals about themselves (cf., Davis, Lehman, Wortman, Silver, & Thompson, 1995). They might conclude "If I had studied more, I would have received a better mark". Sometimes, individuals form counterfactuals about other people, such as "If John had studied more, he would have received a better mark". When individuals form counterfactuals about themselves, they may be especially likely to learn from mistakes.

Implications of counterfactual thinking


Originally, Kray, Galinsky, and Wong (2006) showed that particular counterfactuals can enhance performance on some facets of creativity but compromise performance on other facets of creativity. In this study, some participants were exposed to a counterfactual in which they would have won a prize at a concert had they not shifted closer to the stage. Next, participants were asked to generate possible labels for a new pasta and presented with past examples such as rigatoni and fettuccini. If participants had considered the counterfactual, they were more inclined to suggest answers that also end in the letter "i". That is, they were not as likely to diverge from this pattern.

In another study, again some participants were exposed to a counterfactual. Then, all participants completed the remote associates task. They had to identify a word that corresponds to three other terms. To illustrate, "chocolate", "fortune" and "tin" all correspond to "cookie". Exposure to counterfactuals enhanced performance on this task (Kray, Galinsky, & Wong, 2006).

According to Kray, Galinsky, and Wong (2006), after individuals are exposed to counterfactuals, they become more aware of the causal associations between events. That is, they understand how one event might initiate another event, and so forth. The associations between events and objects, therefore, become more salient.

The activation of these associations can undermine performance on some facets of creativity but enhance performance on other facets of creativity. For example, when these associations are salient, the solutions that individuals uncover are dependent on preexisting associations and knowledge. When they suggest names of pasta, they will conform to the pattern that most preexisting names end in the letter "i". Nevertheless, because these preexisting associations are activated, they might flourish on the remote associates task.

Nevertheless, as Markman, Lindberg, Kray, and Galinsky (2007) showed, the effect of counterfactuals on creativity also depends on whether individuals consider additional acts they should have conducted--an additive counterfactual--or acts they did enact but should have withheld--a subtractive counterfactual. Additive counterfactuals might curb reliance on existing associations and thus enhance creativity in general.

Intentions to change

As Smallman and Roese (2009) confirmed, counterfactual thoughts do indeed, in particular circumstances, foster changes in behavior. That is, if individuals form the thought "If I had studied harder, I would have performed better on the exam", they may be more inclined to study harder in the future.

In one study, on each trial, an event was described briefly, such as "spilled food on shirt" together with an alternative action, such as "should have eaten more carefully". On some trials, to evoke counterfactual thinking, participants specified whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement. On other trials, to represent a control condition, participants were asked a different question, such as whether this action is frequent or infrequent. Next, in the same trial, participants specified whether they agree with a statement like "In the future I will eat more carefully". If participants had been primed to consider the counterfactual, they were more likely to agree to these behaviors. They also agreed more rapidly.

Importantly, the counterfactuals primed only the relevant actions. Participants, for example, were not more likely to agree to behaviors that were unrelated to the counterfactual thoughts.

Confirmation bias

After individuals reach a provisional decision, they tend to demonstrate the confirmation bias. That is, they are more inclined to neglect information that contradicts this decision. If they decide they prefer Coke to Pepsi, for example, they tend to disregard any data that emphasizes the relative merits of Pepsi.

Nevertheless, after individuals consider some counterfactuals, this bias diminishes. That is, when people consider how some event might have unfolded differently, they do not neglect conflicting information (Kray & Galinsky, 2003). Instead, they become more aware that events might not always unfold as anticipated. That is, even trivial changes could significantly affect the consequences of some event. Because of this awareness, individuals consider decisions more systematically, inhibiting their inclination to disregard contradictory information.

This possibility was confirmed by Kray and Galinsky (2003). In their study, some participants read about a person who would have received a reward had she remained in her seat during a rock concert. Hence, the counterfactual--in this instance, the receipt of this reward--was salient. Relative to other participants, individuals who read this counterfactual were not as likely to demonstrate the confirmation bias. That is, they were more inclined to choose to read information that contradicted their provisional decision. They were also more willing to modify their original choice.

Decisions in teams

As Galinsky and Kray (2004) revealed, counterfactuals can also affect team processes. Specifically, after individuals contemplate counterfactuals, knowledge and information that is known by everyone in the workgroup, called unshared knowledge, is more likely to be considered rather than neglected. Team decisions, therefore, are derived from more extensive knowledge.

That is, in team settings, individuals are more inclined to consider information that everyone knows. Information that is known by only one or two people is often neglected. After individuals consider counterfactuals, however, they recognize that trivial changes could affect the consequences of some event. A software package could be effective or ineffective depending on a variety of unknown factors. Once this complexity is appreciated, teams do not strive to seek consensus. They want to explore these complexities. They are, therefore, more inclined to consider matters more carefully and comprehensively as well as consider the varied opinions of individuals in the team.

Meaning in life

Counterfactual thinking, in which individuals reflect upon how events might have unfolded differently, tends to instill a sense of meaning in life or at work. This possibility was substantiated by Kray, George, Liljenquist, Galinsky, Tetlock, and Roese (2010). In this study, participants reflected upon a pivotal event in their lives. Some of the participants also considered how this event could have unfolded differently. This reflection on counterfactual possibilities increased the likelihood the event was perceived as meaningful.

Specifically, in these studies, the participants were college students. In the first study, participants reflected upon the sequence of events that preceded their decision to attend their university. Some, but not all, of the participants were asked to describe "all the ways that things could have turned out differently". Finally, the extent to which individuals perceived this decision as meaningful and significant, as epitomized by questions like "Coming to Northwestern has added meaning to my life", was assessed. Counterfactual thoughts about how their life could have unfolded differently increased the sense this decision was meaningful (Kray, George, Liljenquist, Galinsky, Tetlock, & Roese, 2010).

The second study was similar, except half the participants reflected upon events that could have prevented them from meeting their best friend. The other participants, in the control group, reflected upon details of this meeting instead rather than counterfactual thoughts. If participants had reflected upon counterfactual thoughts, they perceived this relationship as more meaningful (Kray, George, Liljenquist, Galinsky, Tetlock, & Roese, 2010). Subsequent studies showed that such counterfactuals instilled the assumption this event must have been fated& this assumption then reinforced the sense of meaning (Kray, George, Liljenquist, Galinsky, Tetlock, & Roese, 2010).

Commitment and poignancy

Ersner-Hershfield, Galinsky, Kray, and King (2010) demonstrated that counterfactual thinking can elicit an attachment or commitment to organizations, nations, and other entities. In one study, for example, some participants were asked to reflect upon the origin of their company as well as describe how the organization might not have emerged had specific events not transpired. Other participants were also asked to reflect upon the origin of their company, but then merely describe these events in more detail rather than contemplate any counterfactual possibilities. The extent to which individuals felt committed to the organization was then assessed. Furthermore, they imagined how they would feel on their last day working for this company. The degree to which this image evoked various positive and negative emotions was assessed& poignancy was operationalized as the minimum rating of happiness or sadness. Finally, participants were asked to assess whether the trajectory of this company was positive or negative.

Counterfactual reflection increased commitment to the organization (Ersner-Hershfield, Galinsky, Kray, & King, 2010). Poignancy mediated this association. That is, when individuals consider counterfactuals, they recognize the possibility the organization might not exist. This possibility incites feelings of poignancy. This poignancy has been shown to amplify the positive features of this organization, enhancing commitment. Consistent with this interpretation, counterfactual reflection increased the likelihood that participants felt the trajectory of their company was positive.


Hooker, Roese, and Park (2000) argued that counterfactual thinking might be deficient in people with schizophrenia. That is, individuals with schizophrenia are not as likely to consider how some event could have transpired differently or better. They are, therefore, not as likely to derive insights from past challenges.

In their study, patients diagnosed with schizophrenia were indeed not as likely as control participants to engage in counterfactual thinking, as gauged by both trait and state measures. Conceivably, this deficit could be ascribed to dysfunction in the prefrontal regions (see also Roese, Park, Smallman, & Gibson, 2008). Indeed, as Ursu and Carter (2005) showed in a functional MRI study, the orbitofrontal cortex is especially likely to mediate counterfactual thinking.

Antecedents to counterfactual thinking


As the mood as input model implies, when individuals experience a negative mood state, such as dejection, they feel that some problem needs to be resolved. Consequently, they consider issues more comprehensively and systematically. They are, therefore, perhaps more inclined to contemplate a series of alternative outcomes or consequences, reminiscent of counterfactual thinking. In short, negative mood states might elicit these counterfactual ruminations (see also Roese & Hur, 1997).

Sanna, Meier, and Wegner (2001) indeed corroborated this account. As their studies show, after they fail to achieve some goal, some individuals contemplate the changes that could have enhanced their performance, reflecting an upward counterfactual. Other individuals do not entertain these counterfactual thoughts. Interestingly, if a depressing movie had been presented earlier, participants were more likely to consider these counterfactuals. A negative mood, thus, evokes counterfactual thought.

Similarly, Talarico, Berntsen, and Rubin (2009) argued that sadness might elicit counterfactual thinking. That is, when people are sad, they attempts to uncover solutions to solve extensive problems. Counterfactual thinking might facilitate this goal.

These findings are also consistent with an account, proposed by Roese (1999), that counterfactuals tend to be evoked by events that demand corrective action. That is, unexpected failures and threats--events that also elicit negative emotions--tend to foster counterfactual thinking (Roese & Hur, 1997).

Regulatory mode

As Pierro, Leder, Mannetti, Higgins, Kruglanski, and Aiello (2008) showed, regulatory mode might also be associated with counterfactual thinking. Specifically, sometimes individuals adopt a locomotion mode, in which they behave more spontaneously and actively, beginning one new venture almost as soon as they completed the last project. On other occasions, individuals might adopt an assessment mode in which they are more considered and cautious, evaluating their plans carefully and diligently before acting.

Relative to an assessment mode, a locomotion mode is not as likely to evoke counterfactual thinking. That is, in this state, the principal motivation of individuals is to proceed to the next goal--to shift to another plan or venture. They do not, therefore, reflect upon how some outcome could have been better. Such reflections thwart their main motivation to proceed to the next goal (Pierro, Leder, Mannetti, Higgins, Kruglanski, & Aiello, 2008).

Regulatory focus

Arguably, regulatory focus might also affect whether individuals form additive or subtractive counterfactuals. That is, sometimes individuals are particularly motivated to pursue future hopes and aspirations, called a promotion focus. Alternatively, individuals might be motivated to satisfy their more immediate duties and obligations, called a prevention focus. A promotion focus coincides with maximizing gains, more consistent with an additive counterfactual. A prevention focus coincides with minimizing losses, more consistent with a subtractive counterfactual, as discussed by Epstude and Roese (2008;; see also Pennington & Roese, 2003;; Roese, Hur, & Pennington, 1999).

Counterfactual seeking

In some instances, individuals may not only imagine alternative outcomes but can actually examine alternative outcomes, called counterfactual seeking. For example, at university, if disappointed with the elective they chose, students might be motivated to discover more information about other electives, perhaps by asking friends.

Summerville (2011) uncovered two interesting principles about counterfactual seeking. First, if individuals are disappointed with the outcomes they received, they are more inclined to seek information about the alternatives, even if they anticipate this exploration may elicit regret. That is, they are not deterred by this prospect of regret perhaps because anticipated emotions do not seem as intense as actual emotions. Furthermore, they may accrue other benefits if they seek information about the alternatives, such as a reduction in uncertainty, a pleasant surprise, or valuable insight.

Second, if individuals do receive information about the alternatives, their dissatisfaction with their choice actually tends to diminish. That is, before they receive this information, people often compare their choices with the best possible outcome. Consequently, they feel very disappointed. After they receive information about the alternatives, they no longer compare their choices with the best possible outcome. Instead, they compare their choices with these actual alternatives. The discrepancy between their choices and these actual alternatives is not usually as pronounced as the discrepancy between their choices and the best possible outcome. Their disappointment thus diminishes.

Summerville (2011) conducted a series of studies that verify these propositions. In the first study, participants played a game of chance. On each trial, two cards were presented face down. Their task was to choose one of these cards. If the card was black, the participants gained the number of points on the card. A black 5 attracted 5 points, for example. If the card was red, the participants lost the number of points on the card.

On each trial, after choosing one card, participants were then granted the option to observe the alternative card. If they had previously chosen a red rather than black card--and therefore were disappointed by their choice--participants were more willing to observe the alternative card. Disappointment, therefore, encouraged counterfactual seeking.

In the second study, participants needed to choose one of three elective courses from only the name and photo of the professor. Next, they received reviews of the course they chose from previous students. They rated their satisfaction with this information and the level of regret they would anticipate after reading the reviews of other courses. Finally, participants were then permitted to read the reviews of the other courses, before finally reevaluating their satisfaction with their choice.

As predicted, if participants received negative reviews about the elective they chose, they were more inclined to read the reviews of the other courses. They were willing to read these reviews despite generally predicting they will probably regret this decision. After reading the reviews of the other courses, they became more satisfied with their own choice.

A third study showed that reading about alternatives improves satisfaction even when participants were obliged to examine this information. That is, information about alternatives enhanced satisfaction even when participants were not granted an opportunity to decide whether or not they want to read these reviews. The final study showed that participants rated the actual alternatives as less favorable than imagined alternatives.

Related concepts

Minimizing adversities

In response to failures and similar problems, individuals often attempt to minimize the gravity of these adversities. They might engage in a downward comparison and decide the consequences are not severe, called self-generated minimization. Alternatively, someone else might offer advice, insisting the consequences are not severe, called externally-generated minimization.

In general, as Grover, Pinel, Bosson, and LeBeau (2013) showed, self-generated minimization can be reasonably effective, at least in people with a high self-esteem. Externally-generated minimization is not usually as effective. In particular, externally-generated minimization, in which someone else trivializes the gravity or severity of some adversity, increases the likelihood the victim feels isolated rather than understood. This sense of isolation diminishes their resilience.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Grover, Pinel, Bosson, and LeBeau (2013), individuals completed a test that gauges creativity. They were informed their performance was lower than average on this test, and then asked to indicate their mood.

In addition, either before or after this test of creativity, participants completed another task, designed to encourage self-generated minimization or externally-generated minimization. In particular, all participants sorted cards with words that described various academic problems, such as failure on an exam or performing lower than average. Some individuals were told to decide whether the problems are severe or not& given that most of the problems were severe, performing lower than average was always rated as not severe, analogous to self-generated minimization. Alternatively, other participants were told that experts had rated the severity of these problems and decided that performing lower than average is not severe, analogous to externally-generated minimization.

The main finding was that most examples of minimization generated positive mood. The one exception was externally-generated minimization, but only if applied before participants completed the test of creativity. Presumably, these participants were exposed to an expert who minimized the severity of performing lower than average, even before these participants themselves were able to reach this conclusion, potentially evoking a sense of isolation. This sense of isolation may have compromised their resilience. Admittedly, this pattern of observation was uncovered only in participants who reported a high self-esteem. Participants who reported a low self-esteem experienced a negative mood regardless of the condition in which they had been assigned.


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