Downward counterfactual thinking

Counterfactual thinking is a concept in psychology that involves the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred. I’ve no doubt this is a sign of intelligence and it is a residue in our ability to project forward into the future. After all, if you can imagine the different possible futures, you could also imagine different possible pasts.

The question is whether the content of your counterfactual thinking is upward or downward. In other words, do you think the reality could have been better or do you think things could have been worse? People could be more positive when they consider that something worse could have happened rather than the actual outcome. In that sense, downward counterfactual thinking is actually a habit or strong mental re-frame that helps improve our well-being.

Nevertheless, the mind tends towards negativity because it sticks more than the positive. What I think is interesting is that different positions we are in can cause us to have inclination towards upwards or downwards counterfactual. It is interesting how being in second place encourages upward counterfactual thinking more than being in third place – just because you only have one person in front of you. So there are some kind of defaults that our counterfactual thinking drifts towards.

That’s not to say you can’t change your defaults. Part of my coaching practice especially around mindset shifts is exactly about that.