Think about the number of times each day something doesn’t go as planned.
The alarm fails to ring and you’re late for work. A promised promotion does not come to fruition. A phone call or text message distracts while driving, and in the blink of an eye, a car slams into the back of another vehicle.
Each of these scenarios leads to the inevitable question, “What if?”
What if I would have awoken on my own? What if I had taken a more proactive role at work? What if I hadn’t picked up the phone and kept my eyes on the road?
Most of us have experienced a life-altering turning point where we wonder what could have happened differently in our lives, based on choices we wish we have or have not made.
That point is when our minds search for a form of alternate reality, a substitute ending, known as a counterfactual.
According to University of Minnesota psychology professor Kathleen Vohs, “a counterfactual is a mental simulation where you think about what has happened and imagine an alternate ending.”
Counterfactuals focus on specific events, creating a new narrative and timeline. The psychological method serves as a way for the brain to process the past and contemplate the future.
And for some of us, it happens all too often.
It’s only 12:37 p.m. and I already have applied a counterfactual ending to three decisions made this morning.
Unlike a video set on an endless loop, these mental rewinds can lead to improvement in perceptions and decision making.
Like instead of hitting the snooze button three times, I should have headed for the treadmill and walked for a half hour. Won’t make that mistake again.
See, my unconscious psychological immune system is trying to rationalize my decision to catch a few extra zzz’s and guilting me into making smarter decisions.
All kidding aside, revisiting an arrangement or compromise or resolution can be painful, but applying a counterfactual can bring a positive outcome.
How? It shows potential changes that could be beneficial, leading to an appreciation of current reality.
Think of George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. The movie is a perfect example of counterfactual thinking, applied through the rule of subtraction.
Would our lives be worse if we hadn’t experienced a specific turning point? Or, does everything happen for a specific purpose?
My experiences cause me to believe life is one large cause-effect chain, each link adding a pivotal moment, a time to pause and appreciate what was meant to be.
So, just because we decided not to run away to Paris and throw caution to the wind doesn’t mean I can’t visualize the unwritten ending of a riverboat cruise along the Siene and a visit to the Eiffel Tower.
We’re all time travelers, revisionists of unwritten stories based on experiences.
Sometimes, that time travel relies on answered prayers.