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The 4 advantages of counterfactual reasoning: think about what could have been and was not

The 4 advantages of counterfactual reasoning: think about what could have been and was not

June 12, 2024

What if I had dared? What if he 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 am going to put an example. Imagine the typical movie in which a girl (or a boy) is meeting two boys at the same time. There comes a point, when the situation is unsustainable and you have to choose and bet on one of the two. Think, talk with your friends, value and after much thought, in the end choose. Months later, despite the fact that he is doing very well with that boy, thoughts of his type go through his head: "What if I had chosen the other, what would my life be like now?" That is the counterfactual thinking or reasoning: think about what could have been and was not .


But ... and what role does this thought have? Because, at first glance, it does not seem very useful. Ruminating on a past that is no longer there or turning over decisions already taken does not seem to make much sense ... However, we now know that counterfactual reasoning can be useful in certain situations.

  • Related article: "The 9 types of thought and their characteristics"

Why counterfactual reasoning is useful

Science has shown that in certain situations this reasoning can help us make sense of our life. Below I summarize in 4 points why this thought may be useful:

1. Help learn from mistakes and prepare a better future

This is one of the most frequent, and that is How many times have we lamented for our mistakes ... "If I had not left, I would have approved and now I would not have to study for recovery", "If I had not been so proud, we would not have been talking for three days", "What if I had accepted the offer? Maybe now I would have double the salary ... "


Here it's not about crushing us, but about learning . We can not go back, but we can stay at home on the eve of the next exam, swallow the pride in the next discussion and better consider the next offer that comes.

2. Comfort and relieve

This function is performed in face of situations that have been uncomfortable, painful, shameful or unfair. It would be the: "well, it could have been worse". For example, "Those of the airline have taken two days to return our luggage, but at least they have not lost anything" or "The appointment has been a disaster, although luckily the one who has stumbled on the step has been him and not me…". We are relieved to think that within the bad, it has not been as horrible as it could have been .

3. Produce well-being and satisfaction

When? In situations where some success has been achieved. How? Imagining how bad it could have gone. It seems a little masochistic, true, but it has an explanation behind it.


And is that thinking of how bad something could have gone and compared with how great it has been, we feel tremendous satisfaction, pleasure and joy. Why? Because when you compare it, we are even more proud of ourselves for having achieved that success or achievement.

4. It gives an emotion and a meaning to the past

Specifically, to the memories. And here come into play phrases like "had to happen", "was destiny" or "things go through something". With thoughts such as: "It was destiny ... I had to choose and if I did not go, I would not have known what is now my favorite author", we reinforced the emotion of that memory and we gave it a meaning: "I met her because destiny he wanted it. "

We all like to keep in our memory exciting situations that we experience so that we can remember them. Oh, yes, do not put your hand in the fire when you talk to someone about a past event and everyone says that was how he tells. It is more than proven that many times, without being conscious, "Edit" and distort our memories , so we created 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, better not pay attention to it, as it will bring us suffering, lamentation and discomfort. What's the song say, I walked past .


Social Thinking: Crash Course Psychology #37 (June 2024).


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