In This Article Counterfactual Reasoning

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Comprehension of Counterfactual Conditionals
  • Inferences From Counterfactual Conditionals
  • Cognitive Processes in Counterfactual Thinking
  • Functions of Counterfactual “If Only” Thoughts
  • Development of the Counterfactual Imagination
  • Counterfactual Thinking and the Brain
  • Disorders of Counterfactual Thinking

Psychology Counterfactual Reasoning
Ruth M.J. Byrne
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0017


People often think about how things turned out and they imagine how they could have turned out differently, “if only . . .” They create counterfactual alternatives to reality, e.g., “if Paul had driven home by his usual route, then he would not have been in the accident.” Their “what if” and “if only” thoughts allow them to engage in “mental time travel” and explore alternative counterfactual histories. Psychologists have discovered that the comprehension of counterfactual conditionals differs from regular conditionals. Counterfactuals typically use the subjunctive mood, e.g., “if she had taken her shoes off, then the floor would have stayed clean.” Unlike regular conditionals in the indicative mood, e.g., “if she took her shoes off, then the floor stayed clean.” Philosophical analyses of counterfactual conditionals led to the important development in logic of “possible world” semantics. People understand counterfactual conditionals by envisaging two possibilities: reality and the counterfactual alternative to it. They make different inferences from counterfactual conditionals compared to regular conditionals: they reason readily about both reality and its counterfactual alternative. People exhibit remarkable regularities in their creation of counterfactual alternatives to reality. They create an alternative to reality by modifying aspects of reality, such as exceptional events rather than usual ones, actions more than inactions, and events within their control rather than events outside their control. Counterfactual thoughts have social, emotional, motivational, and cognitive antecedents and consequences. The cognitive processes that underlie the counterfactual imagination may be similar to the processes that underlie rational thinking. The function of counterfactual “if only” thoughts is in part preparatory: helping people to identify causes of outcomes and form intentions for the future, and in part affective: enabling people to experience counterfactual emotions such as regret or relief, guilt or satisfaction. The development of the counterfactual imagination may be linked to the development of a “theory of mind,” that is, the idea that other people have minds that are different from one’s own. An appreciation of counterfactual alternatives begins to emerge as early as 2 or 3 years of age although it continues to develop significantly throughout childhood even up to 12 years of age. There is increased activation in areas of the frontal and prefrontal cortex during counterfactual thinking compared to remembering past events or imagining future ones, because of the need to consider both reality and its counterfactual alternative. People who sustain damage to the prefrontal cortex, or who suffer from Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, or autism spectrum disorder exhibit disorders of counterfactual thinking that may underlie their difficulties in learning from mistakes and engaging appropriately with others.

General Overviews

The first pioneering experiments on counterfactual thinking were carried out in Kahneman and Tversky 1982. The authors showed that the alternatives to reality that people tend to imagine are not based on undoing the most improbable event, but instead on mentally simulating an alternative to it, guided by “fault lines” in reality. Kahneman and Miller 1986 proposes that the availability of norms ensures that abnormal events recruit their normal counterparts from memory. Roese and Olson 1995 gathers a collection of chapters on social, emotional, and motivational factors in counterfactual thoughts, including the authors’ own account of the functional basis of counterfactual thinking. Mitchell and Riggs 2000 provides an introduction to children’s reasoning including the development of counterfactual thinking and causal reasoning. Mandel, et al. 2005 presents a snapshot of research on cognitive and applied issues in counterfactual thoughts as well as social and emotional factors. Byrne 2005 explores the possibility that reasoning and imagination share more in common that has previously been considered and suggests that the counterfactual imagination is based on rational principles. The chapters in Markman, et al. 2009 set counterfactual thoughts in the general context of mental simulation and mental time travel. Hoerl, et al. 2011 assembles philosophical and psychological perspectives on the relation between counterfactual and causal thoughts. Roese 2005 presents an easy-to-read proposal about how to use counterfactual thoughts to make better future decisions.

  • Byrne, R. M. J. 2005. The rational imagination: how people create alternatives to reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A discussion of the relation between reasoning with counterfactual conditionals and key regularities in the creation of counterfactual alternatives to reality.

  • Hoerl, C., T. McCormack, and S. R. Beck, eds. 2011. Understanding counterfactuals, understanding causation: Issues in philosophy and psychology. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199590698.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    A collection of chapters by psychologists and philosophers presenting differing views of the relationship between causal and counterfactual thought.

  • Kahneman, D., and D. T. Miller. 1986. Norm theory: Comparing reality to its alternatives. Psychological Review 93.2: 136–153.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.93.2.136E-mail Citation »

    A milestone development in understanding counterfactual thinking that advances a detailed theoretical proposal about the cognitive processes that underlie the construction of comparisons.

  • Kahneman, D., and A. Tversky. 1982. The simulation heuristic. In Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Edited by D. Kahneman, P. Slovic, and A. Tversky, 201–208. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511809477.015E-mail Citation »

    A brief and very readable chapter that pioneered the study of counterfactual thinking by reporting experimental evidence on the tendency to change exceptional events to be normal.

  • Mandel, D. R., D. J. Hilton, and P. Catellani, eds. 2005. The psychology of counterfactual thinking. London: Routledge.

    E-mail Citation »

    A collection of chapters on the mental representation of counterfactuals and their relation to causal reasoning, the functional basis of counterfactual thoughts in learning and in emotions such as luck and regret, and the role of counterfactuals in the context of crime and political history.

  • Markman, K. D., W. M. P. Klein, and J. A. Suhr, eds. 2009. The handbook of imagination and mental simulation. New York: Psychology Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collection of chapters on many diverse topics within the broad theme of mental simulation and imagination includes several articles on the counterfactual imagination.

  • Mitchell, P., and K. J. Riggs. 2000. Children’s reasoning and the mind. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A collection of chapters on children’s reasoning, including counterfactual thinking, causal reasoning, pretense, understanding beliefs and mental states, false beliefs, and theory of mind.

  • Roese, N. J. 2005. If only: How to turn regret into opportunity. New York: Broadway.

    E-mail Citation »

    A book aimed at a general audience that discusses how counterfactuals work and how to make them work for you.

  • Roese, N. J., and J. M. Olson, eds. 1995. What might have been: The social psychology of counterfactual thinking. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    E-mail Citation »

    A set of chapters on social, emotional, and motivational factors in the generation of “if only” thoughts, including the role of personality traits, the effects of framing on the sorts of counterfactuals created, and the positive and negative consequences of counterfactual thoughts.

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