Counterfactual Thinking: A Critical Overview
Neal J. Roese Northwestern University
James M. Olson University of Western Ontario
If matters had fallen out differently, she wondered, might she not have met some other man? She tried to picture to herself the things that might have been--that different life, that unknown husband. He might have been handsome, intelligent, distinguished, attractive....
-- Flaubert ( 1857/ 1950, p. 57)
Tales of human suffering are replete with examples of thoughts of what might have been, of what could have occurred if only a few subtle details had been different. The tormented mistress of Flaubert novel, Madame Bovary with her provincial life, dreams of a better one and a better husband. The ability to imagine alternative, or counterfactual, versions of actual occurrences appears to be a pervasive, perhaps even essential, feature of our mental lives (e.g., Hofstadter, 1979, 1985).
The term counterfactual means, literally, contrary to the facts. Some focal factual outcome typically forms the point of departure for the counterfactual supposition (e.g., Madame Bovary's angst). Then, one may alter (or mutate) some factual antecedent (e.g., her marriage) and assess the consequences of that alteration. Thus, counterfactuals are frequently conditional statements and, as such, embrace both an antecedent (e.g., "If Madame Bovary had married a better man") and a consequent ("she would have been happier"). For present purposes, we restrict our use of the term counterfactual to alternative versions of past or present outcomes, although we are aware that others have also used the term to describe future possibilities (e.g., Hoch, 1985; M. Johnson & Sherman,