- LAST REVIEWED: 18 January 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0017
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
- Abnormal Psychology
- Action Regulation Theory
- Action Research
- Addictive Behavior
- Affective Forecasting
- Allport, Gordon
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Animal Behavior
- Animal Learning
- Anxiety Disorders
- Art and Aesthetics, Psychology of
- Attachment in Social and Emotional Development across the ...
- Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in Adults
- Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in Childre...
- Attraction in Close Relationships
- Attribution Theory
- Authoritarian Personality
- Behavior Therapy, Rational Emotive
- Behavioral Economics
- Behavioral Genetics
- Bereavement and Grief
- Biological Psychology
- Birth Order
- Body Image in Men and Women
- Bystander Effect
- Clinical Neuropsychology
- Clinical Psychology
- Cognitive Consistency Theories
- Cognitive Dissonance Theory
- Cognitive Neuroscience
- Communication, Nonverbal Cues and
- Comparative Psychology
- Conformity, Compliance, and Obedience
- Coping Processes
- Counseling Psychology
- Critical Thinking
- Cross-Cultural Psychology
- Cultural Psychology
- Death and Dying
- Deceiving and Detecting Deceit
- Defensive Processes
- Depressive Disorders
- Development, Prenatal
- Developmental Psychology (Cognitive)
- Developmental Psychology (Social)
- Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM...
- Dissociative Disorders
- Drugs and Behavior
- Eating Disorders
- Ecological Psychology
- Educational Settings, Assessment of Thinking in
- Embodiment and Embodied Cognition
- Emerging Adulthood
- Emotional Intelligence
- Environmental Neuroscience and Environmental Psychology
- Ethics in Psychological Practice
- Event Perception
- Evolutionary Psychology
- Experimental Existential Psychology
- Exploratory Data Analysis
- Eyewitness Testimony
- Factor Analysis
- Festinger, Leon
- Five-Factor Model of Personality
- Flynn Effect, The
- Friendships, Children's
- Fundamental Attribution Error/Correspondence Bias
- Gambler's Fallacy
- Game Theory and Psychology
- Geropsychology, Clinical
- Health Psychology
- Heuristics and Biases
- History of Psychology
- Human Factors
- Humanistic Psychology
- Implicit Association Test (IAT)
- Industrial and Organizational Psychology
- Intelligence, Crystallized and Fluid
- Intercultural Psychology
- Intergroup Conflict
- International Classification of Diseases and Related Healt...
- International Psychology
- Interviewing in Forensic Settings
- Intimate Partner Violence, Psychological Perspectives on
- Item Response Theory
- Law, Psychology and
- Learned Helplessness
- Learning versus Performance
- LGBTQ+ Romantic Relationships
- Lie Detection in a Forensic Context
- Life-Span Development
- Locus of Control
- Meaning in Life
- Mechanisms and Processes of Peer Contagion
- Media Violence, Psychological Perspectives on
- Memories, Autobiographical
- Memories, Flashbulb
- Memories, Repressed and Recovered
- Memory, False
- Memory, Human
- Memory, Implicit versus Explicit
- Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI)
- Moral Development
- Moral Psychology
- Moral Reasoning
- Neuroscience of Associative Learning
- Nonparametric Statistical Analysis in Psychology
- Obsessive-Complusive Disorder (OCD)
- Occupational Health Psychology
- Operant Conditioning
- Optimism and Pessimism
- Organizational Justice
- Parenting Stress
- Path Models
- Peace Psychology
- Perception, Person
- Performance Appraisal
- Personality and Health
- Personality Disorders
- Personality Psychology
- Phenomenological Psychology
- Placebo Effects in Psychology
- Play Behavior
- Positive Psychological Capital (PsyCap)
- Positive Psychology
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Prejudice and Stereotyping
- Prisoner's Dilemma
- Prosocial Behavior
- Prosocial Spending and Well-Being
- Protocol Analysis
- Psychology, Political
- Psychophysics, Visual
- Psychotic Disorders
- Reasoning, Counterfactual
- Rehabilitation Psychology
- Religion, Psychology and
- Replication Initiatives in Psychology
- Research Methods
- Risk Taking
- Schizophrenic Disorders
- School Psychology
- Self, Gender and
- Self, Psychology of the
- Self-Determination Theory
- Self-Regulation in Educational Settings
- Sensation Seeking
- Sex and Gender
- Sexual Minority Parenting
- Sexual Orientation
- Signal Detection Theory and its Applications
- Single People
- Skinner, B.F.
- Sleep and Dreaming
- Small Groups
- Social Class and Social Status
- Social Cognition
- Social Neuroscience
- Social Support
- Social Touch and Massage Therapy Research
- Somatoform Disorders
- Spatial Attention
- Sports Psychology
- Stereotype Threat
- Stress and Coping, Psychology of
- Subjective Wellbeing Homeostasis
- Teaching of Psychology
- Terror Management Theory
- Testing and Assessment
- Theory of Mind
- Therapies, Person-Centered
- Therapy, Cognitive-Behavioral
- Thinking Skills in Educational Settings
- Time Perception
- Trait Perspective
- Twin Studies
- Type A Behavior Pattern (Coronary Prone Personality)
- Women and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM...
- Women, Psychology of