Counterfactual Thinking (How Changing the Past Wouldn’t Necessarily Make Your Life Better)

Many of my clients struggle with what is known as Counterfactual Thinking. Also known as a “What if?” approach to life, some people’s minds almost seems programmed to sadly focus on events that never occurred. Very often I hear, “If I had only gotten this job I’d be happier,” “if I had asked this woman out on a date life would be better,” or “had I not gotten into that car accident I’d be in a much better spot.” They assume that certain unrealized outcomes would have led to happiness, or at least to a greater sense of life satisfaction. This is due to our innate drive to seek out as much pleasure and self-actualization as possible.

Cognitive therapists will challenge this way of thinking and encourage clients to more consider all possible results – and hold contradictory ideas simultaneously (also known as Cognitive Dissonance) – not just happiness. For example, it doesn’t cross many people’s minds that the dream job might not have been as fulfilling as originally thought, or required too many hours, or would have simply caused them to miss the next job opportunity that came or will come along. They don’t consider that if they had gone out with that woman they might have gotten married and then suffered a painful divorce, or not have met a current or future partner. Could the car accident have served as a wake-up call so the client drove a bit more safely and avoided the more tragic collision that might have occurred a week later? We can’t state with certainty that any of these things would have been the result but the same can be said for the initial assumption: that life would be better. Fortunately, when clients begin let go of Counterfactual Thinking they start to focus more on what’s in front of them rather than what is already over and out of their control.

Unfortunately, this type of thinking can be difficult to alter. New ways of thinking require practice to have positive results that are long-term. In fact, many clients reject the very notion that Counterfactual Thinking is, in fact, a bogus way of looking at the world. They can’t get their minds around the idea that an unrealized outcome could possibly be a good thing.

When logic fails, therapists will sometimes utilize stories and parables to highlight therapeutic points. For years I couldn’t come up with a good tale to highlight how problematic Counterfactual Thinking is. Most of my yarns involved me getting accepted to Harvard and becoming a world famous Psychologist who can pick the winning Powerball numbers daily, which would have probably precluded the client and I working together that very day. “And wouldn’t that be just horrible??” I’d ask. Rarely did the idea of not having me as a therapist seem as unbearable as I made it out to be.

One day, however, a client told me an apparently famous story that she used to overcome Counterfactual Thinking. I’ve since shared it with good success:

A man in a village is given a horse. All of the people in the village tell him, “This is wonderful! You’ll get so much more accomplished on your land with this horse.”

The man says, “I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing.”

The horse runs away a few weeks later. “Oh, this is awful,” the people say. “Your friend and worker is gone.”

The man says, “I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing.”

A few days later his son finds not only the horse, but a half-dozen other stray horses and returns to the village with them. “Hurrah!” the visitors shout. “We are truly fortunate!”

Again the man says, “I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing.”

Weeks later the son is thrown from one of the horses, breaking both legs, and the people are completely despondent. “Your poor son!” they say.

The man says “I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing.”

While the son is recovering the village is attacked by a hostile neighbor. The village is able to defeat the enemy but some of the people are killed. “It’s fortunate your son was unable to fight due to his legs. He could have been eliminated like some of the others.”

And again, the man says “I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing.”

“And so on, Dr. Dobrenski,” she said.

When I asked her what that story meant to her she said, “The man doesn’t assume that because something ‘good’ or ‘bad’ happens that similar consequences will follow. It might be good or bad in the moment but no one knows what will happen later because of it. When you look back on failures or bad luck you can’t ever claim with perfect accuracy that your life would be better had the past been something other than what it is. You can only state that your life would be different. Whether it would be better or worse is something you’ll never know.”

You can’t say it much better than that.

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25 Responses to “Counterfactual Thinking (How Changing the Past Wouldn’t Necessarily Make Your Life Better)”

  1. I’ve heard different versions of that story before but it is always a good reminder… I was suffering from some Counterfactual Thinking myself today.
    Personally, I think that an experience is always likelier to be better than a lack of that experience. Even the worst moments of my life have taught me invaluable lessons, and I have trouble thinking of many examples in which something happened that, in the long term, I wish hadn’t.
    A question for you, Rob: Do you find that Counterfactual Thinking is likelier for opportunities missed (e.g. I should have asked that woman out on a date) or mistakes made (e.g. I should never have asked that woman out on a date)?

  2. Dr. Rob says:

    In my work experience it is more likely to occur for opportunities missed. I seem to be particularly good at torturing myself with both, however.

  3. Anonymous says:

    That story is also told in Charlie Wilson’s War. I would recommend seeing it just for the use of the story to allude to the future issues with Afghanistan, and it offers a large-scale application of the same philosophy.
    Great post. Keep up the good work! This is one of my favorite blogs out there.

  4. Tam says:

    I am much more likely to engage in irrational optimism about how things worked out, like, “Wow, if my mom hadn’t died and left me in the ghetto in Calcutta, I never would have become a gem-maker’s apprentice and had the fabulous life I have now in the tiny lean-to allotted to me!”
    It seems more positive if not less crazy.

  5. Anonymous says:

    My small penis is definitely a blessing in disguise

  6. Dr. Rob says:

    Dr. Steve, is that you?

  7. TheSV says:

    Do you know the story of the burning hut? I find it a good example of things that may turn out to be good even when they appeared to be bad.
    A guy is shipwrecked at sea and washes up on a deserted island. He waits to be rescued but no one comes. Eventually he builds a lean-to shelter to keep him out of the elements. He is off trying to gather food when his hut catches fire. He curses God, crying out “How could you do this to me???”
    The next day a ship arrives to rescue him. “How did you find me?” he asks of his rescuers.
    “We saw your smoke signal.”

  8. Will J says:

    I’ve a question about this type of thinking. You say that many of your clients suffer from it, but is there any reason to suspect that people seeking out therapy have a higher chance of this type of thinking? Or is it more related to humanity’s way of thought in general? I suffer from this “What if?” thought process sometimes. While I whole-heartedly agree that it’s not good for practical thinking, sometimes something bad happens in life and the allure of a different outcome is too hard not to consider. Even as a passing thought. I would even argue that it’s healthy (although I am NO expert in this) for an individual to recollect on past experiences and wonder how things would have been sometimes. Not just bad experiences, but good ones too. But, maybe I’m wrong.

  9. Happy Hilary says:

    Yes, I see the benefit of counterfactual thinking. On the other hand, can’t we also bemoan the stuff that truly sucks? What if the car accident wasn’t your fault…but rather, the mistake of the drunken mess who careened through the solidly red light at the intersection….and cancer….I admire guys like Dr. Randy Pausch, but I also admire that woman I read about in Vanity Fair who was PISSED OFF about getting cancer, horrible chemo and an early death, having to leave her wonderful husband and small children way way way too early….what I’m saying is, yes, there are any number of alternate possibilities in life, but also: when a drastic event occurs it DOES change a life forever, and sometimes those changes are just awful ones….well, I guess I won’t be winning the coveted “Most Positive Person” award anytime soon….but I’d rather be honest about the sheer crappiness of life than forcing myself to be happy in a fake-it-till-you-(don’t really)-make-it way…but I also do think conterfctual thinking is fine to empoy, as well…in Moderation…I also see the value in black humor…I loved this comment from DocRob: _”Rarely did the idea of not having me as a therapist seem as unbearable as I made it out to be.”…and also the small wonder guy’s comment….very amusing & funny!!!!:)

  10. Dr. Rob says:

    Regarding last two comments: I think we all tend to engage in this type of thinking, or at least entertain it. That shows that we’re processing the world around us and trying to learn from our experiences. It’s when we make unequivocal DECISIONS about the past that we can get ourselves into trouble. I would never tell a client or anyone else that when a tragedy occurs (which of course changes lives permanently) that they shouldn’t feel sad, that maybe something good will come of it, but unless you believe in a Grand Plan, which I do not, then the reality is that every event sets off a complete new set of events. Some of those are positive, some are negative. But if we lock into, “this is bad, therefore everything that follows is bad as well,” then we’re locked into Counterfactual Thinking.
    Today is Tuesday and I have about 4 million things going on so someone write something profound b/c I clearly can’t do that today.

  11. Joe says:

    Or…people could just focus on the future and be constructive instead of looking back at the myriad good or bad things that COULD have happened. I’m no shrink, but is that an acceptable course of treatment? It seems like being even keel and constructive would require looking ahead and being concrete, as much as looking back and playing fortune teller. The latter seems to require the kind of abstract thinking that would lead people to obsess, if they are already prone to that sort of thing.

  12. Tracie says:

    Joe, I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at. How does looking into the future require any less “fortune telling” than examining the past? In both cases you’re making a prediction. In the case of looking ahead and “being concrete” I can imagine a different yet equally strong obsession could arise, that being the fear of making the wrong decision and hence not doing a damn thing.
    I get around this whole conundrum by making broad judgments on large groups of people. Rather than playing the what-if game, I just assume the worst of most people and play the game as if that were true. Hooray, pessimism! 😀

  13. Amber says:

    It’s the not knowing that drives people insane. It’s also human nature, I believe, that doesn’t allow people to be content with what they have.

  14. Bob says:

    I think everyone has had their bout(s) with constant self reflection, which I believe leads most people to Counterfactual Thinking. It’s taken many years for me to get over that way of thinking. One thing that really helped me was simply asking myself “What does this accomplish?” Almost all of those thoughts yielded nothing but a negative self image.
    Self improvement through introspection is one thing. Fantasy land “What if?” scenarios are something else.
    I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful. I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful.

  15. Neutral Nell says:

    “It’s when we make unequivocal DECISIONS about the past that we can get ourselves into trouble.”
    I do see your point, Rob. I’ve always been fascinated by how a slightly different view of some event or state can bring fresh insight. Life is very nuanced.
    I can’t stand being forced to be positive, however. I also dread the people who, with clenched teeth, inside rigid jaws, insist on how…Positive…they are. As for making decisions about the past, well…I really shouldn’t have pushed my cantakerous “mee-maw” (our family name for my grandmother) down the well, like I did. I have been beset by regrets. However, I see now how much freer I am and how much more at ease, as well. Now that she’s out of my life and…just Out of life, in general, really. So, what I, personally, take from all this is that what may LOOK negative on the surface (and even like an illegal, heinous, cold-blooded crime), can, in reality, actually turn out to be an uplifting, life-altering event. For me, if not for her. Or rather: the former and the latter for me, and just the latter for her.
    Life. Does one Ever stop learning???:)

  16. Charles D says:

    I really liked this post and I like the story as well.
    A quick story I try to tell myself when I do this is about the first time I failed a class in high school. I had to retake the class and I met my best friend retaking it. I stayed friends with her and met one of my other best friends through her. The three of us lived together and now I have a great relationship with the other best friend’s sister. So at this point failing that class was a great move on my part.

  17. Wayland says:

    Makes you think. Good stuff man.

  18. Risto says:

    The problem I have with counterfactual thinking is that it forces a subjective valuation on an objective event. Value judgments are only valid as a summation of all realized positives and negatives minus all foregone positives and negatives, yet most people only take into account the realized outcomes. Of course, this necessarily stems from an inability to evaluate all possible outcomes stemming from a particular decision. Ultimately, the subjective value of a past event is worthless because it cannot be changed anyway. It seems to me that counterfactual thinking is merely an excuse in every instance, for it belies some sort of dissatisfaction and a search for an excuse.
    This is basically what you hinted at in your piece, but you avoided saying it outright. “If only”‘s are an instance of people trying to distance themselves from responsibility for their current situation. I do not mean for how they got into the situation necessarily, because that inevitably will bring in the “what-if-I-got-hit-by-a-drunk-driver” claimants, and I agree that they are not completely responsible for anything that happens to them (as random chaos governs so much of our daily lives), but people are always responsible for themselves going forward, and “if only”‘s arise when someone doesn’t want to face the decisions ahead of them. It is merely wishful thinking based on semi-fact (as they are centered around opportunities over which the complainer seemingly had control, as opposed to “if only I’d won the lottery”), but it is no less useless in the long run.
    As per your story, the man realized that events are never good nor bad, and that is why I like it. Good and bad are merely valuations we impose on things in order to arrange, classify, and judge them, and are ultimately false.

  19. Keivn says:

    I think one of the most common (and benign) examples of counterfactual thinking occurs when watching any sporting event. Any missed extra point in a football game, and you’re guaranteed to hear the commentators mention it when the game looks like it’s going to come down to a single point.
    “If only they hadn’t missed that extra point, we’d be going to overtime,” they’ll say, completely ignoring the fact that every play after that one would have changed, which allows the possibility of a blowout instead of a one-point loss.
    I almost wish I wasn’t a psychologist, so that I might not recognize this and get so annoyed by it while watching football.

  20. Borderline Betty says:

    Risto says: “…but people are always responsible for themselves going forward, and “if only”‘s arise when someone doesn’t want to face the decisions ahead of them.”
    The flip side of counterfactual thinking is this deeply entrenched, rather starry-eyed myth that every American can be a self-made man/woman to some deeply meaningful degree. Even if this can happen, more or less, that doesn’t mean life still won’t suck badly, anyway. We all love to blame the victim and then heap scorn upon the victim’s head if they are not all la-dee-da about things. We love the happy, contented heroic sufferer, but hate the seething, simmering one with a chip on his shoulder. Peasants – of all sorts – should be happy enough, right!?! Although you have some valid points, Risto, your line of reasoning can quite easily be used by the fortunate to justify their own good circumstances in an overly self-congratulatory way. More than we like to think, sheer luck has a Big hand in many of our successes And failures. Your views are also handily employed by people to not care about the conditions of the less fortunate. (“If they Really wanted to, they could get better, get more money, get get get…”). If they Really wanted to, these unfortunates would just be a movin’ forward! Never mind the fact that sometimes the way forward is not as far as those happyhappy myths would have us all believe. This is all rather like karma, perhaps, but with a more rational quality, that gives it a gloss of the scientific. Come to think of it….Are you a computer…by the way….dear Risto…?;)

  21. Zac says:

    That was awesome. This is one of the major issues that I have and, hopefully, this’ll help me put it in perspective. Actually, I’ve tried to avoid doing the “what if” thing with some success, but I’ve been backsliding lately. Hopefully I can get myself to stop soon. With that said, great post Dr. Rob.

  22. Rodney Daut says:

    Dr. Rob,

    Your post on how destructive counterfactual thinking can be was very interesting. I’d heard the story you shared at the end before and it’s always a good reminder to hear those kinds of stories again.

    I’ve also read about a kind of counterfactual thinking that is healthy and beneficial to people. In a few studies they found that thinking about how a positive event might not have occurred made people happier than thinking about the event itself.

    Here’s a link to just one study on this topic.

    Thought you might find that interesting.


    BTW the first time I tried to post a comment it disappeared so if this appears twice you can just delete one of them.

  23. Whitney says:

    The same proverb pops into my Facebook feed…from two of my favorite Internet spots…within 48 hours! Hmm.

    Here’s the other:

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