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-)
- Roese, N. (1997) Counterfactual thinking. Psychological Bulletin, 121 (1), 133-148. DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.121.1.133
- Epstude, K. & Roese, N. (2008) The Functional Theory of Counterfactual Thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12(2), 168-192. DOI: 10.1177/1088868308316091
- McCrea S.M. (2008) Self-handicapping, excuse making, and counterfactual thinking: consequences for self-esteem and future motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(2), 274-92. PMID: 18665702. DOI: 10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1994
- Stewart, A. & Vandewater, E. (1999) “If I had it to do over again…”: Midlife review, midcourse corrections, and women’s well-being in midlife. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(2), 270-283. DOI: 10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.520
Related post: The benefits of pessimism