Counterfactual Thinking: Everything You Wanted To Know

From a psychological perspective, counterfactual thinking has received more attention in recent years. Mental representations and cognitive processes underlie the construction of counterfactuals, according to cognitive scientists.

They showed that people tend to consider “if only” options less often for regular events than for exceptional ones. This was the first study of counterfactual thought. In the meantime, many associated trends have been examined, including the activity’s causal relation to other events.

Its place in the temporal order and whether it is controlled. Psychology has studied cognitive function and counterfactuals in a larger social context.

counterfactual thinking
Downward counterfactuals tend to make people feel dissatisfied and unhappy.

Counterfactuals that envision a better outcome are called upward counterfactuals. Positive counterfactuals are the kind of thoughts that enable people to better their lives in the future.

However, downward counterfactuals tend to make people feel dissatisfied and unhappy.

Factors Of Counterfactual Thinking

According to norm theory, several factors influence how easy it is to imagine or design alternatives to reality. A primary assumption of norm theory is that the more imagined options there are to an event, the stronger the reaction it will elicit.

As predicted by norm theory, subjects recommended that victims of fates with highly available alternatives be compensated more. The study findings are discussed in terms of their implications for victims of various types of crime.

Indication of direction

As stated by Social Comparison Theory, a counterfactual may be upwards or downwards. The positive counterfactual compares the present with a better future, giving advice on staying ahead, while the negative counterfactual compares the present with a worse fate.

The likelihood of upward counterfactuals is higher than that of downward counterfactuals.

Additive and Subtractive

As a counterfactual statement, an event that initially happened can be rewritten. The concept of an additive statement refers to adding an event to an existing one instead of subtracting a current event.

Oneself vs. Others

A counterfactual can be either the actions of the self or others, and this distinction is simply one of the self-or-other actions. The self counterfactual is more common than the other person counterfactual.

What Is Meant By Counterfactual Thinking In Theory

Rational Imagination theory

A set of cognitive principles is provided by Byrne (2005) that describe what people think about when they imagine an alternative to reality. Studies have shown that people prefer to consider few possible outcomes instead of many false possibilities.

A counterfactual entails considering at least two options–truth and an alternative version, plus a wrong case that is temporarily taken as accurate. According to research, people tend to look at the possibilities which are most familiar to them. Atypical events are not necessarily regular events, actions are more important than inaction, and recent events in a sequence are more important than events from the past.

Functional theory

People can benefit from counterfactual thinking and its cognitive processes according to the functional theory.

In procrastinators, downward counterfactuals tend to be more prevalent than upward counterfactuals. Because of this, they are less motivated to change; they become complacent. Counterfactual thinking may not work for perfectionists.

The counterfactuals of depressed individuals are less reasonable and achievable because they focus on controllable events. Empstude and Roese believe excessive counterfactual thinking increases anxiety and distress. Counterfactual thinking will be more likely to occur when individuals are strongly focused on improving outcomes.


Several studies have shown that counterfactuals have a primary role for individuals as well as for groups. Counterfactual thinking is activated when people do not reach their goals.

In order to achieve positive outcomes, people engage in upward counterfactual thinking. Compared to other positive effects, this outcome appears worse. As a result, they take positive action in the future to reach their goal.


Epstude and Roese contend that individuals experience affect when their outcomes do not match their salient ideal alternative results. According to the type of counterfactual used, affective contrast can be either positive or negative.

Whenever they feel negative emotions like guilt or anger, they will minimize discrepancies to avoid negative emotions. Hence, an individual’s desire to attain a goal motivates them to take action.

Counterfactual reasoning in human cognitive neuroscience

As a defining characteristic of human thinking, counterfactual reasoning allows us to determine what a given situation really means from an alternative viewpoint.

The concept of counterfactual representations, e.g., imagined past events or future outcomes not yet realized, is central to the process of learning from past experiences, enabling planning and prediction, supporting creativity, and contributing to social or personal attributions, as with regret and blame.

However, counterfactual reasoning is surprisingly poorly understood psychologically.


Considering how interconnected brain systems and mental processes are in counterfactual reasoning, we gain a comprehensive view of global brain behavior. Counterfactual reasoning disruptions are a scientific and diagnostic tool.

A counterfactual perspective provides valuable insight into different possible worlds and circumstances that surround us in everyday life. Understanding how this process operates is essential for understanding the rich, inner worlds we inhabit.

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