Niall Ferguson is a well-established author and historian that helped popularize the use of “counterfactual thinking” in history. Counterfactual simply refers to re-imaging the outcome of an event — like you’re living in an alternate universe. He might ask a question like “What if the assassination attempt on Hitler was successful, would we have had WWII?” Or “What if John F. Kennedy had lived?” He explores several intriguing questions like these in his classic book Virtual History.


You can apply this to recent events to make for a fun dinner party conversation like, “What if Facebook didn’t exist, would Trump have been elected?” This could lead to a discussion about technology that requires you to analyze the facts and speculate about “what if;” perhaps arriving at the great irony of a liberal Silicon Valley facilitating the election of a conservative leader through a technology they themselves created.

Besides these mind games, you can also use counterfactuals to think and act more positively in everyday life. The ability to imagine alternatives is common to all people and tends to trigger our mind into counterfactual thought particularly in three situations:

  1. When we experience a fail or bad luck (lost the game, failed the test).
  2. When something almost happens aka the Wakeup Call (almost got hit by a car, almost dropped the baby)
  3. When we are surprised by an outcome (if only I had gone the other way I would have missed this traffic).

For example, it’s often noted that the Bronze Medalist is happier than the Silver Medalist. When they get a bronze, they’re thinking “Wow I’m so lucky that I at least got a medal.” But when one gets silver, they think “Darn, I was so close to gold!!” Of course, how happy they are with their situation is simply a matter of their perspective, even though silver is better than bronze.

Several experiments point to four types of counterfactual thinking that we experience, summarized here:

  • Upward additive = ‘Things would have been better if I had only done X.’ (unsatisfied silver medalist )
  • Upward subtractive = ‘Things would have worked out better, if only I hadn’t gone and done X.’
  • Downward additive = ‘Things could have been worse if I had done X instead of Y.’ (satisfied bronze medalist)
  • Downward subtractive = ‘Things might have been worse if I hadn’t done X.’

When you don’t win the gold medal (or you get a B instead of an A on your test) and take home the silver, your mind will jump to the upward additive of “If only I would have done x!” That’s ok — you’ve already had the thought. Now you should also consider the downward subtractive…

“Well, if I wouldn’t have nailed that last pole vault, then I would have not gotten silver. Good thing I spent that extra 1 week resting and tried that new protein powder or else I might have gone home with a measly bronze.”

Now you’ve turned your upward additive tendency to be negative into something positive. That’s a good first step. From there maybe you feel better about your silver medal, but it’s easy to just think and not do. Just “thinking” is a huge trap for many of us, for the silver medalist (“ok, so a silver medal isn’t so bad after all”) as well as for the highly skilled master procrastinator (“things could be worse, so I will do it later”), and doesn’t actually help us improve, but just kind of reassures us that things are OK. Therefore the next step is not to ruminate, but to take action.

In order to take action you can ask yourself to imagine “What things could I have avoided doing that might have produced a better outcome?” or “What additional things could I have done that might have produced a better outcome?” Then identify those tasks and take action.

If you almost got hit by a car, then you know to look both ways before crossing the road. If you failed the test, don’t just think about it, find out why and take the actions to make sure it doesn’t happen again. When you’re surprised that you ran into traffic, make a habit to check traffic before leaving for work. If you didn’t get gold, then what do you need to get it next time?

The biggest takeaways here are that first, reframe your counterfactual to something more positive. Second, just thinking about these outcomes is going to do little, rather, attaching an action to your counterfactuals will take them from the realm of neuronal storytelling to tangible change in your life.

You can read more about counterfactuals herehere and the wiki here.

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