What might have been

Wistful thinking

If only...

What if…?

Everyone has moments when they wonder about what would have happened if only they had… got that A grade rather than a B… stuck with the guitar practice… summoned up the courage to ask out that person they admired in secret…

Of course, such musing doesn’t have to be regretful. ‘Imagine if we hadn’t sat next to each other on the train, we might never have got together?’ ‘What if I had gone through with my decision not to look at the job ads that day?’ Thinking like this usually provokes feelings of relief and self-congratulation.

We seem to be drawn to such speculation about things we cannot change and possibilities that no longer exist.

There is a name for this speculative mental rewriting of history; it’s called counterfactual thinking.

It comes in a number of different flavours depending on whether you think about how things could have been worse or better and whether you are thinking about what you should have done or what you shouldn’t have done.

  • Upward additive (U+) = ‘Things would have been better if I had only done X.’
  • Upward subtractive (U-) = ‘Things would have worked out better, if only I hadn’t gone and done X.’
  • Downward additive (D+) = ‘Things could have been worse if I had done X instead of Y.’
  • Downward subtractive (D-) = ‘Things might have been worse if I hadn’t done X.’

In general, upward counterfactuals (thinking how things could have turned out better) tend to produce negative feelings and downward counterfactuals (thinking how things could have been worse) usually produce positive feelings. For example, athletes who win bronze medals tend to be happier than those who win silver medals. The silver medalists are are thinking ‘If I had run a little faster, maybe I could have come first’ (upward). Whereas the bronze medalist is thinking ‘Phew, at least I didn’t come fourth and miss out on the medals entirely’ (downward).

Counterfactuals and career coaching

People often engage in counterfactual thinking when contemplating career change. If only I handn’t taken safe option rather than pursue my passion. Maybe if I had left the job sooner.

This can be beneficial if it leads to ideas for better ways to address similar problems in the future or increases motivation to make a change. However, excessive rumination that doesn’t lead to action can result in long term dissatisfaction (Stewart & Vandewater, 1999).

Upward counterfactual thinking is more likely to occur spontaneously than the downward variety because the disappointment we feel when things don’t turn out as well as we had hoped prompts us to seek understanding of what went wrong and to search for solutions that will help us to avoid similar pain in the future.

However, downward counterfactual thinking can be an extremely useful tool for helping clients. One particular area where it comes into its own is when you are trying to help a client identify their skills and call to mind evidence that could be used in applications and interviews.

A lot of people find it hard to isolate occasions when they were performing well. Such occurrences don’t stick in the memory as easily as times when things went wrong.  In this case, questions that prompt downward counterfactual thinking can be quite productive.

  • Can you think of a situation in which it would have been easy to make a mistake or where things could easily have gone wrong?
  • What things might you have done that could have made the situation go badly?
  • How could you have messed things up by failing to do something important?
  • So, if you avoided doing those bad things and managed to do those good things, what skills were you demonstrating?

Counterfactuals and reflective practice

It’s not only clients who can benefit from this approach. I am frequently involved in peer review and mentoring of other careers advisers, which involves reviewing performance in one-to-one or group work. In this situation too, people find it easier to focus on what went wrong and what they found difficult. Good reflective practice, though, involves extracting the maximum learning from all experiences, both positive and negative.

So, when you are reviewing your work with clients, here are four questions you can ask yourself:

  • What things could you have avoided doing that might have produced a better outcome? (U-)
  • What additional things could you have done that might have produced a better outcome? (U+)
  • What could you have done (but didn’t) that would have made your coaching less effective? (D+)
  • What things did you do that might have produced a worse outcome if you hadn’t done them? (D-)

Related post: The benefits of pessimism

Photo credit: howbizarre

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  1. #1 by Helen Pownall (Careers Service) on 26 May 2010 - 12:02

    Very interesting post, thank you David. I sometimes a use a kind of ‘forward projection’ version of this when talking to clients who are at a crossroads trying to make a difficult decision between two paths (often changing degree course or career). I ask them to take each choice in turn and imagine they are say 1, 2 or 5 years down the line and things either have (or haven’t) worked out how they expected. I ask them to describe how they feel and say what they regret/what are they glad about. Not quite the same thing, but sometimes do say that they fear they might experience regrets of the kind you mention (“If only I hadn’t taken safe option rather than pursue my passion. Maybe if I had left the job sooner.”) So maybe some people can engage in this kind of thinking in advance to help their decision making process.

    • #2 by David Winter on 26 May 2010 - 14:08

      Thanks Helen

      I was wondering whether to include something about this type of thinking about the future as well as the past, but I decided to go for a shorter post after some of my recent long essays. However, I have got a few forthcoming posts pencilled in to look at our ability to anticipate the future – based on a very good book I have just finished called Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.

      I have used a similar technique myself. Sometimes I go a step further and suggest that the client spends a few days thinking and acting as if they have definitely made the decision in favour of one of the options. At the end of the week, they stop and switch to another option and spend the next few days acting and thinking as if they have decided on that one instead.

      Sometimes, a client just needs to deal with one possible future at a time rather than trying to keep them all superimposed in their minds simultaneously.

      Does it always work? I find that some clients have real difficulty imagining themselves in the future (Gilbert’s book outlines our many failings in our ability to predict how we will feel about something that’s ahead of us).

  2. #3 by Abi on 27 May 2010 - 10:50

    It’s interesting that when I’m looking at this with regards to reflective practice, it’s an awful lot easier to answer the U+ and U- questions than the D+ and D- questions. That shows me that it’s quite a useful tool for moderating perfectionist tendencies (thereby producing more job satisfaction??) – forcing oneself to answer the D+ and D- questions rather than sticking to the usual U+ and U- questions that go around your mind after a guidance interview…!

    • #4 by David Winter on 27 May 2010 - 11:07

      Thanks Abi

      I know exactly what you mean. Being a bit of a perfectionist myself I also tend to spend a lot more time thinking about what I did wrong or what I forgot to do. I have to make a conscious effort to focus on good stuff that I did and, especially, bad stuff that I avoided. I have found that both giving and receiving feedback from others really helps with that. Not only do other people help you to focus on the D+ and D- but, the more reinforcing feedback you get, the easier it becomes to do it yourself.

      Do report back on how you get on making more of an effort to give D+ and D- their fair share.

  3. #5 by Catherine Reynolds on 1 June 2010 - 13:42

    Thank you to David for prompting this interesting conversation with his thought provoking piece on counterfactual thinking for us and our clients. Questions to add to our repertoire of open questions are always welcome.
    Critical thinking structured in the CFT way can clearly have benefits and I would add Richard Sennett’s points about motivation and sharing expertise in social contexts as he explains in ‘The Craftsman’. I’m particularly thinking about the final third of his book which is about craftmanship and quality in work. I think counterfactual thinking can help our motivation for quality as we grapple with continuous quality improvement (just about to have a Matrix visit here). And Sennett is good on telling us when to stop! David is demonstrating the sociable side of expertise on this Blog – so thank you!

    Catherine

    • #6 by David Winter on 3 June 2010 - 07:30

      Thank you Catherine

      I haven’t read that particular book, but it sounds interesting. Any chance you could tell us a bit more about it?

      I work a lot with medics for whom reflective practice is also important. However, many of the junior doctors are not sure how to do it, or only do it half-heartedly. I think the same is true of many careers advisers and coaches. I’m keen on finding any tools that make it easier to engage with. Counterfactual thinking is definitely one of those tools.

      I would like to hear about any other tools that make the process of reflective thinking easier and more structured.

  4. #7 by David Winter on 19 August 2010 - 14:48


    The power of counterfactual thinking to increase motivation and analysis.

  5. #8 by Isabella on 11 August 2012 - 20:25

    This place just keeps getting more impressive every time I show
    up. You should definitely be happy.

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