Friday, August 14, 2015

The Allure of Undoing Reality -- "If Only," "Coulda," "Woulda," "Shoulda"

Humans have a number of "interesting" qualities, some of which seem to be unique in the animal kingdom.  One of these is quite odd and puzzling when you first think about it:  We love to undo reality.  Given almost any event or state of affairs we are very likely to imagine alternatives to it --  a cognitive process called "counterfactual thinking."

As an example, consider the all-too-frequent news story of a gunman who mows down innocent people.  Take your pick of several recent actual cases of this, say the June shootings of 9 people in a Charleston, S.C. church (NPR, 7/10/15).  The facts of this tragedy are clear: a gunman with self-admitted racist motives opened fire after sitting through the church service and 9 people are dead.  At first news stories focused on the scope and details of what happened, then turned to analyses of the implications and possible causes, and finally to counterfactual assessments of how this terrible event could have turned out differently.  "If only" racism wasn't so prevalent.  Or, "if only" the background check of the alleged gunman wasn't flawed, it "shoulda" prevented him from buying a weapon.  Or, "if only" tighter security measures at the church had been in place (e.g., metal detectors, arming the pastor with his own gun), they "coulda" barred him from entering or at least reduced the number of people he killed.  Any or all of these imagined factors might have undone the reality of 9 dead people.

Events in our own lives are also often the focus of counterfactual thinking.  Negative events seem particularly likely to engage our cognitive efforts to imagine alternatives to reality.  An accident, a mistake, an illness, or other bad incident inevitably leads to assessments of counterfactual factors that might have led to a more positive state of reality.  What could we have done differently?...what should we have done?...if only we would have done X then the bad thing could have been prevented or perhaps something positive would have happened instead.  Of course, counterfactuals may include factors over which we have no control -- genetic predisposition, undetectable environmental hazards, unexpected behavior of other people, etc. and their plausibility has the benefit of absolving us of responsibility for the event.  However, these alternatives are often discounted because they imply that we may not be able to control what happens to us -- a very uncomfortable idea for most of us to entertain (even if true).

Counterfactual thinking has been the focus of a good deal of research and theory in social psychology over the past thirty years, beginning with the insightful work of Kahneman & Tversky (1982).  The result is a fairly complete understanding of the nature of the phenomenon -- why we tend to undo reality, the circumstances that govern the likelihood we will do so, the determinants of the kinds of factors we select as the most plausible counterfactual alternatives, the cognitive and emotional impact of counterfactual thinking, the nature of individual differences in extent and style of counterfactual thought, etc.  In order to avoid having you engage in counterfactual thinking along the lines of "if only I hadn't clicked on the link to this blog, I could be doing something way more fun, like sorting my socks," let me just cut to the chase and give you a few highlights of what these efforts have produced.  For more thorough reviews, see the references at the end.

  • Undoing reality has emotional consequences.  As you probably noticed from the examples above, counterfactual thinking nearly always is associated with emotions in two ways.  First, the actual event or state of reality likely provokes positive or negative feelings.  Mass shootings of unarmed people is abhorrent to us. Personal accidents, failures to achieve goals, mistakes we make, losses of loved ones, illness,  and economic misfortunes engender fear, sadness and despondency. Second, the counterfactuals and the alternative reality they generate also evoke emotions, for instance when we imagine that there was something we could have done to prevent something bad from happening we feel regret, shame, or anger.  One way of alleviating negative emotions is to engage in what is called "downward" counterfactual thinking -- considering ways things could have been even worse -- "at least"  the plumbing leak didn't damage our new sofa, or "at least" the car still runs after I smashed it into that wall...."
  • Emotional consequences aren't always rational.   Our tendency to take mental short-cuts when we think about events sometimes leads to emotional reactions that rely less on logic or facts than on things like the ease with which certain alternatives to reality come to mind rather than others, based on their recent salience, mutability, or personal relevance.  For instance, losing the lottery with a ticket that is just one number off provokes a much stronger emotion than losing with a ticket that has no matching numbers, even though the probabilities of the two losing numbers are exactly the same.  It is much easier to imagine that "if only" just one number had been different we would have won than to imagine all the numbers having been different.  Likewise, having a costly car accident the day after we forgot to renew the insurance is likely to make us feel worse than if the accident happened a month later, even though in both cases the payment error results in the same financial outcome.
  • Undoing reality is a good thing (usually).  Given the fantastical nature of counterfactual thinking and the angst it can produce, it may seem  puzzling why we spend so much time doing it.  The answer comes from decades of research that points to the indisputably functional nature of  undoing reality and the emotional response that results (see Epstude & Roese, 2008).  By considering alternative ways an event (particularly a negative one) might have occurred, along with factors that might have prevented it or produced a more positive outcome, we can adapt future behavior to be more effective or to avoid repeating past mistakes. The regret and remorse associated with considering counterfactuals, though uncomfortable, may motivate changes in behavior that are more adaptive in the long run.  Indeed, it could be argued that the human tendency for counterfactual cognitive activity is an evolutionary consequence of having nervous systems that aren't programmed with predominately instinctual behaviors -- it is the necessary mechanism by which we adapt and change to new environmental demands.
  • But not always.  Like any powerful adaptive tool, counterfactual thinking can be misused or can be applied in ways that lead to personal or social difficulties.  In particular we have to be able to distinguish between counterfactual factors that are realistically controllable and those that are not, otherwise we might become engulfed in feelings of guilt, shame or remorse when it really isn't justified.  Likewise, we can blame others for not foreseeing or controlling things that they in truth could not have.
I guess the bottom line here is that human nature seems to involve considerable cognitive activity that entails imagining states other than those have actually occurred -- undoing reality is something that makes us (uniquely) human.  Though there is ample scientific evidence that this characteristic is adaptive in an evolutionary sense, it might still be questioned whether focusing too much cognitive effort on alternatives to events distracts us from fully experiencing and appreciating the present.  As with other human tendencies, it might be beneficial at times to control and limit our inclinations, natural though they may be.
Some Source References:

Counterfactual thinking - Wikipedia

What might have been:  The social psychology of counterfactual thinking. Neal J. Roese & James M. Olson (eds.) Psychology Press, 2014, 2nd edition.

Epstude, K.; Roese, N. J. (2008). "The functional theory of counterfactual thinking". Personality and Social Psychology Review 12 (2): 168–192.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1982). "The simulation heuristic". In Kahneman, D. P. Slovic, and Tversky, A. (eds.). Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, pp. 201-208. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Randy said...

In the church shooting cited above (and so many other similar ones) much of the counterfactual thinking invariably posits how much better things would have turned out if everyone had been armed. I look forward to piece from you soon on “unintended consequences”!

Coleen Hanna said...

Thank you, Dick, very enjoyable to read. I appreciate all of the work you do to entertain me! My husband thinks I do way too much counterfactual thinking. I think he is right, and at the same time, it has worked out positively for me in at least a few instances.

My friend and I were discussing a recent incident in which another friend was kidnapped and held at gunpoint for 2 hours. The gunman was in the back seat of my friend's car, ordering her to drive to various places (crossing a state line) unfamiliar to her while holding a gun to her head. We naturally tried counterfactual thinking--how could our friend have prevented this?--and came up with nothing productive. Of course, we were considering how WE may have acted differently to avoid this crime. Sounds like victim-blaming, but I guess we were just scared because the whole thing just seemed to hit too close to home.