Dysfunctional Implications of Counterfactual Thinking: When Alternatives to Reality Fail Us
Steven J. Sherman Allen R. McConnell Indiana University
Living in the here and now and focusing only on the tasks and events of the present are things that people do not do easily. Our minds wander to the past with floodings of nostalgia as we recall events, experiences, and relationships that used to be. And especially for people in the Western world, thoughts and images race to future times with feelings of hope, anticipation, or dread. This inability to stay grounded in the present or to "stop and smell the roses" was, in fact, a major theme of the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Related to this inability of people to keep their thoughts and feelings tied to current experiences, tasks, and issues is their inability to accept their present reality and to be satisfied with it. Instead, they have a compelling propensity to alter reality and to reflect on "what could have been, what might have been," and "what should have been." People undo reality and find ways in which it might have been different by mutating or slipping conditions that were antecedents to the current situation. This tendency is probably no better captured than it is by Marlon Brando's lines "I could have been a contender; I could have been somebody" from On the Waterfront. In short, people evaluate many life events not simply by the reality of what comes to pass but also by thoughts of what might have been. This obsession with alternatives to reality, this ubiquitous imagination of other possible worlds, has been called counterfactual thinking, and it has become a growing area of speculation and research in psychology since the publication of a seminal paper by Kahneman and Miller in 1986.