Downward Counterfactual Thinking

Understanding Downward Counterfactual Benefits

Some counterfactual thinking Opens in new window involves imagining how things could have been worse. These reflections are called downward counterfactual thinking.

Downward counterfactual thinking may serve the function of enhancing coping and feelings of relative wellbeing by highlighting how the situation or outcome could easily have been worse.

These kinds of thoughts usually make people feel fortunate, because their present condition is better than what it could have been. Sometimes these thoughts occur spontaneously, such as when something bad almost happens. Coming upon a grisly car accident scene just moments after it occurred can engender the thought “it could have been me,” which is a downward counterfactual thought that causes feelings of relief.

Downward counterfactual thoughts can also be generated deliberately or strategically, when people want to make themselves feel better. Someone who is not selected for a promotion might think, “Well, things could be worse — I could be unemployed,” which is a downward counterfactual thought that causes feelings of satisfaction and raises the person’s injured self-image. Thus, one possible benefit of downward counterfactual thoughts is that they can make people feel better.

Whereas downward counterfactual thinking can make people feel better (cause positive emotions), upward counterfactual thinking can make people feel worse (cause negative emotions). By thinking about how things could have been better (upward counterfactual thoughts), people make their actual situation seem worse by comparison, which can arouse dissatisfaction or unhappiness. However, upward counterfactuals often have important benefits—they generate useful ideas for how to avoid negative outcomes but it’s often tagged with an emotional price, making people feel bad.

Newspaper stories after tragic events often articulate counterfactual possibilities that elicit strong emotions. For example, after the terrorism of September 11, 2001, stories appeared in the media describing many unusual cases, such as people who were called to last-minute meetings in the World Trade Center and perished in the collapse of the towers.

On a happier note, one young father who worked near the top of the towers drove his children to preschool in the morning because his wife was sick; he was late getting to work and missed the attack. These stories derive their emotional impact from the fact that it is so easy to imagine how things could have been different.