Upward and Downward Counter-Factual Thinking or “What If?”

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By definition, counterfactual thinking is the creation of possible alternatives to certain life events that have already happened. It basically means “counter to the facts”, and comes with phrases that we know pretty well: “If I had only…” and “What if?”

We resort to counterfactual thinking when we think at a certain point in the past and at how we could have changed it – for better, in most cases. Of course, we could say that it’s all only a dream, as counterfactual thinking can’t change those things.

However, this type of thinking can prove itself useful, as we are bound to learn from our mistakes if we know how to take advantage of the moments in which we think about previous events and about how they could have happened differently.

The Basics of Counter-Factual Thinking

When it comes to counterfactual thinking, it consists of two parts – the activation and the content. The first part marks the moment in which we allow counterfactual thoughts to get inside our head, by analyzing a past event. The content part is, obviously, the part in which we come up with all the possible scenarios of that past event.

The activation is based on our belief that a certain event might have had another result – beneficial or harmful. Counterfactual thoughts usually occur when we are not happy with a certain outcome. In this case, we will try to come up with harmful things that might have happened – and comfort us that the way it actually happened is better than any other.

Naturally, we will also think about how it could have ended up better – if we lack self-esteem, we will deny any possible harmful results, and try to think at the things we could have done differently to get an even better result.

Usually, if we are unhappy with an outcome, it means that we were only one step away from making it how we now want it to be. This is yet another trigger factor of counterfactual thinking. If only one different action or word would have changed the outcome of something entirely, we will begin to as ourselves “What if?”

Benefits of Counter-Factual Thinking

Counterfactual thinking may be a burden for our heads sometimes. We don’t always fully understand why we think of possible outcomes for a situation that’s long gone and done. However, it is only a base for the evolution of our mind and of our way of thinking.

  • Behavior Intention – thinking about what we might have done better, we will be able to apply counterfactual thinking to similar events in the future. For example, if you left a light open in your house while on holiday and were greeted by a not o pleasant electricity bill, you will be thinking at the money you didn’t have to pay for it. Therefore, in the future, before leaving your house, you will most likely remember to check all of the lights. We may not be able to change the past, but we may influence our future.


  • Risk Aversion – of course, thinking at ways through which we can change the outcome of past events, will make us assess the risks of present and future events better. If you know you have hit your toe one too many times while walking through the living room, you will know, in the future, the distance you have to keep from furniture in order to avoid it happening again.


  • Activity Directed Towards Goals – if you are playing any sport, then there have been a lot of times when you have failed to reach your goal: failed a shot, a move, etc. When you make proper use of counterfactual thinking, you will learn how to do better in the future. Failing an exam will only prompt you to study more and better – because the question you will be asking is “What if I studied more?”, therefore being compelled to do so in the future.


  • Collective Action – counterfactual thinking is mostly used on an individual level; however, it can greatly improve the way a group works. When used in a collective, group, counterfactual thinking occurs – most of the times – before a certain event is to take place. In this way, more people will come up with solutions that will eventually lead to the best outcome possible.

Upward and Downward Counter-Factual Thinking

There are several types of counterfactual thinking, two of them being the upward and the downward counterfactual thinking.

The upward state of this type of thinking is when we think at things that could have changed the outcome of an event in better. On the other side, the downward state focuses on the worse, specifically at how things could have been more serious than they were.

The latter state is most commonly relied on to make people feel better, grateful with a certain outcome, even if it’s a bad one. You might be feeling bad after eating too much sushi, but you would have felt worse if you had eaten all the sushi on the table.

Now you know why “What if” occurs, and also the ways through which it benefits you and your mindset. Don’t feel let down by a certain outcome of a past event – but learn from it so you can be prepared in the future.

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