What if I had dared? What if I had said yes? These and a thousand other questions are typical of counterfactual reasoning . It consists of imagining alternative realities to our current reality, with all the emotional implications that this entails.
I’ll give you an example. Imagine the typical movie where a girl (or a guy) is meeting two guys at the same time. There comes a point, when the situation is untenable and she has to choose and bet on one of the two. She thinks, talks to her friends, evaluates and after much reflection, finally chooses. Months later, despite the fact that she is doing very well with this guy, she thinks: “what if I had chosen the other one, how would my life be now? That is the counterfactual thought or reasoning: thinking about what could have been and wasn’t .
But… and what is the function of this thought? Because, at first glance, it doesn’t seem to be very useful.To ruminate on a past that is no longer there, or to go over decisions already made, does not seem to make much sense… However, today we know that counterfactual reasoning can be useful in certain situations.
Why Counterfactual Reasoning is Useful
Science has shown that in certain situations this reasoning can help us make sense of our lives. Below I summarize in 4 points why this thought can be useful:
1. It helps to learn from mistakes and to prepare a better future
This is one of the most frequent ones, and it is that how many times we will have regretted our mistakes … “If I hadn’t gone out, I would have passed and now I wouldn’t have to study for the recovery”, “If I hadn’t been so proud, we wouldn’t have gone three days without talking to each other”, “What if I had accepted the offer? Maybe now I’d have double the salary…”
Here it is not a question of crushing us, but of learning . We can’t go back, but we can stay at home on the eve of the next exam, swallow our pride in the next discussion, and better consider the next offer that comes along.
2. Comforts and soothes
This function is carried out in the face of situations that have been experienced as uncomfortable, painful, embarrassing or unfair. It would be the: “well, it could have been worse”. For example, “It took two days for the airlines to return our luggage, but at least they didn’t lose anything” or “The date was a disaster, although it’s a good thing it was him who tripped over the step and not me We are relieved to think that within the bad, it hasn’t been as horrible as it could have been .
3. Produces well-being and satisfaction
When? In situations where some success has been achieved. How? By imagining how bad it could have been. Seems a bit masochistic, true, but there’s an explanation behind it.
Thinking about how bad something could have gone and comparing it with how great it was, we feel a tremendous satisfaction, pleasure and joy. Why? Because by comparing it, we feel even more proud of ourselves for having achieved that success or achievement.
4. Gives an emotion and meaning to the past
Specifically, memories. And here, phrases like “it had to happen”, “it was fate” or “things happen for a reason” come into play. With thoughts like: “it was destiny… I had to choose and if I didn’t go, I wouldn’t have met my favourite author today”, we reinforce the emotion of that memory and give it a meaning: “I met her because destiny wanted me to”.
We all like to keep exciting situations we experience in our memories so that we can remember them. Ah, but don’t put your hand in the fire when you talk to someone about a past event and each one claims that it was the way he tells it. It is more than proven that many times, without being aware, we “edit” and distort our memories , so that we create a “new version”.
Having seen these 4 points, we have learned that counterfactual reasoning is useful if we use it for these 4 purposes. For everything else, it is better to ignore it, as it will bring us suffering, regret and discomfort. As the song says, past tense .