What is counterfactual thinking?

Can thinking about the past really help us create a better present and future?

man holding mug in a thinking pose
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  • There are two types of counterfactual thinking: upward and downward.
  • Both upward and downward counterfactual thinking can be positive impacts on your current outlook - however, upward counterfactual thinking has been linked with depression.
  • While counterfactual thinking is a very normal and natural process, experts suggest the best course is to focus on the present and future and allow counterfactual thinking to act as a motivator when possible.

"To some extent, your life can be thought of as the sum of the choices you have made. Of course, some choices are better than others. Looking back at past decisions (i.e., engaging in counterfactual thinking) is only natural in humans." - Psychology Today

    “Upward” versus “downward” counterfactual thinking

    concept of man thinking about the past one line drawing counterfactual thinking

    What are upward and downward counterfactual thinking?

    Image by one line man on Shutterstock

    What is upward counterfactual thinking?

    Upward counterfactual thinking happens when we look at a scenario and ask ourselves "what if" in terms of how our life could have turned out better.

    Examples of upward counterfactual thinking are:

    • "I wish I had taken that other job instead of this one 10 years ago - my life would be so much better if I had."
    • "I wish I would have gotten the part in that high school play, maybe I could have gotten into a theatre school and became an actor…"

    Both of these examples have the ideology that if you had made different choices, your life right now would be improved.

    What is downward counterfactual thinking?

    Downward counterfactual thinking is, naturally, the opposite of upward counterfactual thinking in that we think about how things could have been worse if other decisions had been made.

    Examples of downward counterfactual thinking are:

    • "I'm so thankful I studied secondary education in university instead of psychology like I had originally planned - I love teaching high school kids and I never would have gotten to do that…"
    • "I'm so happy I left David when I got the chance, I can't imagine still being in an unhappy marriage with someone who doesn't support me…"

    In these examples, we see the idea that if you had made different choices your life would not be as good as it is right now.

    How counterfactual thinking can impact your life

    While many people don't see the point in "what if" scenarios, various studies have found that downward counterfactual thinking can be more associated with psychological health compared with upward counterfactual thinking. Not only that, but research has also shown upward counterfactual thinking can be linked with current and future depression.

    Downward counterfactual thinking tends to be more associated with psychological health

    According to a 2000 study, downward counterfactual thinking can be linked with better psychological health compared to upward counterfactual thinking. More importantly, in cases where downward counterfactual thinking did lead to negative feelings, those feelings acted as something of a motivator for people to take productive actions to better their current situation.

    Upward counterfactual thinking tends to be more associated with depression

    According to a 2017 study that pooled a sample of over 13,000 respondents, thoughts about "better outcomes" and regret (upward counterfactual thinking) were associated with current and future depression.

    Downward counterfactual thinking can actually improve your relationships and is more often engaged in by women than men.

    In a 2016 research paper submitted to the Department of Psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, downward counterfactual thinking in regards to romantic relationships was associated with relatively positive relationship outcomes. Interestingly, women were more likely than men to engage in downward counterfactual thinking about their romantic life.

    Upward counterfactual thinking can have some benefits in certain scenarios.

    When we look back after a failed test and think "I wish I would have studied more" - this motivates us to study harder the next time a test comes up. In this way, upward counterfactual thinking (or the negative version of "what if") can actually benefit us.

    This can be difficult, though, because much of the time upward counterfactual thinking is more associated with a pessimistic outlook that can be unmotivating.

    Thinking in the past tense can be motivational (and even healthy) at times, but the best thing to do is look forward.

    While counterfactual thinking as a whole can be used to motivate us to make better choices or appreciate where we are in life, this Psychology Today article suggests that we should come up with ways to move on and focus on the present and the future instead of the past. Using counterfactual thinking as a motivational tool can be very helpful if we don't get stuck in the "what if" mindset that tends to pull us out of the present and back into the past, where things will always remain the same.

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