Upward Counterfactual Thinking

What Is Upward Counterfactual Thinking?

Counterfactual thinking, or mentally imagining alternatives to past or present factual circumstances) is common in our daily routines. We have all thought about “what might have been,” if people had only behaved differently. What if you had studied harder in high school? What if your parents had never met? What if the other candidate had won the election?

The most common type of counterfactual thought Opens in new window has been labeled upward counterfactual thoughts.

  • Upward counterfactual thoughts involve inflecting on how things could have turned out better.

Most of the examples we have seen in the introduction to this entry have been upward counterfactual thoughts- such as a student wishing he had stayed home to study last night, or a woman wishing she had brought an umbrella to work.

Upward counterfactual thoughts are particularly likely to occur after a negative outcome (Roese & Olson, 1997). When something bad happens, it seems almost inevitable that people will think about how the event could have been avoided, especially when it was unexpected (Sheppered & McNulty, 2002). Notice that this process can be very adaptive – people may be able to think of ways to prevent a recurrence of the negative outcome (i.e., ways to avoid a similar event in the future). When a student thinks, “I wish I had studied the textbook more instead of the lectures–I would have done better on the test,” she has identified a way to improve her grade on the next exam (namely, by studying the text book more).

People make far more upward than downward counterfactuals, which is probably a good thing because it causes people to consider how to make things better in the future (Roese & Olson, 1997). For example, if Eduardo looks back on his exam and regrets not studying harder so he could have earned a higher grade, he will probably study harder next time.

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Downward counterfactuals have their uses too. They particularly help people feel better in the aftermath of misfortune. When something bad happens, people say, “It could have been worse,” and contemplating those even more terrible counterfactuals is comforting.

In essence, upward counterfactuals bring to mind possible worlds that are better than reality, whereas downward counterfactuals bring to mind worse possible worlds. Clearly, being sentenced to imprisonment is a negative event that can have harmful consequences for an individual (Bukstel and Kilman 1980). Thus, it is almost certain that prisoners would engage in upward counterfactual thinking about the chain of events that led to their imprisonment. Accordingly, upward counterfactuals have been shown to influence judgments of causality (Wells and Gavanski 1989), preventability, and blame.

Theorists have suggested that the motive or desire to improve explains why upward counterfactual thoughts occur. The reason we engage in upward counterfactual thinking after a negative outcome is because it helps us to avoid similar negative outcomes in the future (we want to improve).