'Counterfactual' thinkers are more motivated and analytical, study suggests

February 9, 2010, University of California - Berkeley

(PhysOrg.com) -- "If only I had..." Almost everyone has said those four words at some time. Rather than intensifying regret, '"what if" reflection about pivotal moments in the past helps people to weave a coherent life story, and fosters their organizational commitment, scholars say.

"If only I had..." Almost everyone has said those four words at some time.

According to a new study, counterfactual thinking -- considering a "turning point" moment in the past and alternate universes had it not occurred -- heightens one’s perception of the moment as significant, and even fated. Armed with a sense that life may not be arbitrary, counterfactual thinkers are more motivated and analytical in organizational settings, the study suggests.

“What we found is that people indicate stronger commitment to an organization when they think counterfactually and it helps to define who they are on a professional level,” says Haas School Associate Professor Laura Kray.

The study was conducted by six scholars, including Kray and her colleague, Professor Philip Tetlock. “From What Might Have Been to What Must Have Been: Counterfactual Thinking Creates Meaning” was published in the in January 2010. “For the first time, we demonstrate that counterfactual thoughts about one’s life have predictable consequences for how critical events and cherished relationships are understood," the authors write.

“Although you might think that counterfactually thinking is just going to lead me down a path of regret, it is actually very functional in terms of helping people establish relationships and make sense of cause and effect,” says Kray, “Counterfactual reflection about pivotal moments in the past helps people to weave a coherent life story.”

Kray notes the “what might have been” scenario is a popular narrative device, as developed in the 1998 film, Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The film reveals two story lines: what happens when Paltrow's character makes it through the “sliding doors” onto the train, and what happens when she doesn’t and misses the train.

“The irony is that thinking counterfactually increases the perception that life’s path was meant to be,” says Kray, “which ultimately imbues one’s life with significance.” While one might argue that believers of destiny would be less inclined to be analytical, the research also found that people who think counterfactually and find meaning in their lives are more apt to believe life is not a product of chance and that they can make valuable choices.

Kray and Tetlock were first intrigued by counterfactual thinking’s relationship with fate following the 2000 presidential election. Kray recalls conservative commentators talking about how it was evident George W. Bush was destined to be president, and there appeared to be no perception that the race could have just as easily gone the other way. The questions arose, “What is fate?”, “How do people think about it?”, and “Is fate incongruent with personal choice?”

The team conducted experiments with student volunteers to discover how counterfactual thinking heightens the meaningfulness of key life experiences. The researchers asked one group of students a question in which the language prompted counterfactual thinking; the other group was asked to respond only factually.

For example, when asked to write an essay on how they met a close friend, the counterfactual group was asked to explain all of the ways they might have not met this friend. The factual group was only asked to recount the factual details of the first encounter. When reflecting on the alternative -- never having become friends -- the participants who were prompted to think counterfactually viewed their friendships as more meaningful. The factual group did not experience that feeling of significance.

The researchers produced similar results when asking students to identify a turning point - or quintessential "fork in the road" moment -- in their lives in which a counterfactual world should seem most plausible and easy to imagine.

“Getting people to think counterfactually helps people see relations better and construct meaning in their lives,” says Kray. In the context of business, Kray says subsequent research found having a sense of meaning fosters organizational commitment. In combination with Kray’s earlier work showing that people who think counterfactually are more analytical, counterfactual reflection is proving to be a very powerful tool in organizational settings.

“How we react to counterfactuals is a great test of how open- or closed-minded we are on a topic," adds Tetlock, who has studied how people think about what-if scenarios at the organizational and even country level. "In my book Expert Political Judgment (2005), I find that the more imaginatively experts think about possible pasts, the better calibrated they are in attaching realistic probabilities to possible futures.”

Explore further: Embrace your regrets and move forward, psychologist says

More information: Read the full paper: www.haas.berkeley.edu/groups/o … s/kray_paper2010.pdf

Related Stories

Embrace your regrets and move forward, psychologist says

January 24, 2005

Have regrets? Don’t push them away. Harness them and move on as a smarter person, says Neal Roese, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Roese tackles the sometimes touchy topic in ...

When charities ask for time, people give more money

August 22, 2008

According to new research in the Journal of Consumer Research, simply asking people a question about whether they're willing to volunteer their time leads to increases in donations of both time and money.

'Directed thinking' increases time spent exercising

June 24, 2008

"Directed Thinking" involves asking people to think about information related to a topic that they already know which directs them to action. A study in the Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research shows how "directed thinking" ...

Study: Want to be happier? Be more grateful

November 25, 2008

Want to quickly improve your happiness and satisfaction with life? Then the pen may be a mighty weapon, according to research done by Kent State University's Dr. Steven Toepfer.

Recommended for you

Galactic center visualization delivers star power

March 21, 2019

Want to take a trip to the center of the Milky Way? Check out a new immersive, ultra-high-definition visualization. This 360-movie offers an unparalleled opportunity to look around the center of the galaxy, from the vantage ...

Physicists reveal why matter dominates universe

March 21, 2019

Physicists in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University have confirmed that matter and antimatter decay differently for elementary particles containing charmed quarks.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 09, 2010
I wonder what brain mechanisms underlie this feeling of "meaning" that can apparently be attached more or less to a given experience. There have been times when I probably tended to attach too much meaning to events. For example, during a period of extreme sleep deprivation I entered a state where meaning was apparent in the smallest details. Was my brain just being more transparent to my consciousness as it explored possibilities (e.g. counterfactuals)? Could this lead to an understanding of the differences in people's brains when they are religious or not? Very interesting subject...
2.5 / 5 (2) Feb 09, 2010
They should study two different groups: those who are happy and satisfied with their lives and those who believe they missed the boat. I'm willing to bet the two groups have two totally different reactions to counterfactual thinking.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 09, 2010
Sounds too much as if the authors are seeking to impose "some kind of structure- any sructure" on something that isn't really mysterious at all.
Of Course people attach additional significance to outcomes of critical times in their lives. To suggest that they are always pleased with the choices they made, as in CANDIDE, is ridiculous. And of course, if you are still friends with someone after many years, it would seem as though there might be some meta-force guiding that selection- but what about all those that didn't last. No- what they observe here is people trying to rationalize away the most basic, primal fear of all- that of their own insignificance.
not rated yet Feb 10, 2010
The article had meaning for me since counterfactual thinking is a habit of mine, though I never had a label for the process. Mostly I view the process as recognizing that life could take different paths based on what choices one makes. Most often this thinking leads to an increased appreciation for the present and all that led to being here and now, as well as a curiosity over "what if" other choices had been made.
not rated yet Feb 10, 2010
So, considering all past possibilities requires more analytical thought than simply recounting facts? And this additional analysis makes things seem more significant? Makes sense, but isn't it fairly obvious?
3.5 / 5 (4) Feb 10, 2010
Breakthroughs in science have always been to find what afterwards becomes "obvious". It is always a fight, since the people who thrive on controlling other people, instead of contributing to knowledge, hate the "obvious". Just like the present physics community hates the "obvious" fact that "quantum field theory" can NEVER incorporate gravity since it is based on the wrong interpretation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle for position and momentum: This wrong interpretation has excised gravity from quantum physics! Gravity is determined by the concepts of inertia and mass which DEMAND that the position and momentum of any particle with mass must manifest simultaneously.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 10, 2010
They should study two different groups: those who are happy and satisfied with their lives and those who believe they missed the boat. I'm willing to bet the two groups have two totally different reactions to counterfactual thinking.

They should also study people along both ends of the political spectrum. I suspect the least happy and non-counterfactual are the "command and control" faction, i.e. the ones who believe only they know what is right for everyone else.
not rated yet Feb 15, 2010
I can see this research easily being perverted for corporate gain by having counterfactual seminars where employees get to think about how much worse off they could possibly be if they were unemployed... yay, productivity increase >_< *shudder

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.