Susie: If only… what if?

A grahic image of a symbolised brain to represent counterfactual thinking.

If only I was more creative. What if I had…? What if you didn’t? What if we? If only I could… If only they…if, if, if.

Simple words that can shape beliefs and attitudes, trigger regret, cause us to ruminate on past issues, spiral into a fantasy world, affect decision making, teach us, motivate us or cause us to write new and different narratives.

Such small words with potentially powerful impact.

This kind of thinking is not logical or rational. Not truly lateral or most of the kinds of thinking we are familiar with. It is called counterfactual thinking and provides us with new lenses through which to see our world.

Counterfactual thinking is “what if’ thinking.

More specifically, our thoughts whereby we imagine possible alternative outcomes to things that have already occurred—and contrary to what actually happened.

Counterfactual thinking would seem to be a strange and even useless kind of thinking. It is in all likelihood an entirely human behaviour. It is hard to imagine our dog or cat engaging in ‘what if’ thinking, but I could be wrong on this.

When do we do it? And why?

We indulge in different kinds of counterfactual thinking all the time to counter reality and fantasise about alternate scenarios. We might use downwards thinking to contemplate how we might have experienced more negative outcomes than actually happened…for instance, if we break a leg, we tell ourselves “it could have been worse and been two broken legs”. We do this to comfort ourselves, to reconcile with our reality and to downplay the negative impact of an event that we cannot change. It can help us cope. Funnily enough though, it is of little comfort when others make the same observation about our plight and tell us how lucky we are!

If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker. - Albert Einstein

When we think upwards, we imagine that we could have had more positive outcomes—where we tell ourselves that our research project would have been better if we had spent more time and care on it. Such a reflection may be tinged with regret and self-punishing should messages for future behaviour.

We can reflect on our failure and resolve to modify behaviours for the better next time. We make a promise to our future self that may (or may not) change what we do. This helps us cope with our reality and maybe improve our behaviour. Curiously though, once again, when others tell us how it could have been better we are unlikely to be comforted and may become defensive or feel that they are being controlling.

When we write other characters into our scenario, we might add a scapegoat or whipping boy. We fantasise that if only (the other person) had done/not done X…..thus distancing ourselves from our role and reducing our responsibility in the matter. Then we can happily play the blame game and comfort ourselves about how others have failed us. We then become victims and our world becomes smaller. Powerful stuff.

We might also make ourselves a defacto participant when we congratulate ourselves that we were NOT involved in an incident that we could have been involved in under usual circumstances. For example, ‘if only’ we were on the way to work as usual…we could have been affected. The lucky escape that makes us either feel like (vicariously) a kind of hero or genuinely grateful for being spared.

Clearly while there are kinds of counterfactual thinking that focus on negative outcomes and nurture dystopian views, I choose to concentrate on those that provide more positive benefit.

Because here’s the curious thing…

Movie Poster for Its a Wonderful Life starring James Stewart

Our brains cannot differentiate between things that are real, fiction or past. Until we focus our attention on our thoughts, we do not release the essential neurotransmitters that make us feel good or bad. So we create our mood or attitude by simply indulging in ‘what if’ thinking. This explains why movies can convincingly scare us or move us to tears or both. Revisiting memories, rehashing past events will have a similar effect.

To visualise how a counterfactual story can unfold, the 1946 Jimmy Stewart Christmas film classic  ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and a more recent 1990s movie, ‘Sliding Doors’ use the counterfactual concept to illustrate the ‘what if’ scenario by showing what life coulslidingdoorsd have been in an alternate situation. In each case, contemplating the downwards effect to show what would have been a far less satisfying situation than the characters’ actual reality.

The positive effect of this type of comparison is to encourage appreciation for what we have and feelings of gratitude. It can positively change our perceptions so we can experience a whole new awareness. And as researchers increasingly tell us, gratitude has a powerful and positive effect on our mental, physical and emotional health and on our relationships.

“We need to regularly stop and take stock; to sit down and determine within ourselves which things are worth valuing and which things are not; which risks are worth the cost and which are not. Even the most confusing or hurtful aspects of life can be made more tolerable by clear seeing and by choice.” Epictetus

Fantasies, movies and gratitude aside though, counterfactual thinking is also a great tool to use when being creative. It can break us from the confines of our current attitudes and thinking by asking ‘what if’ and using both upward and downward scenarios to reframe possibilities. It may also be useful in identifying possible unanticipated outcomes.
Some theorists insist that counterfactual thoughts can never become real situations because they are purely theoretical and relate only to events of the past. However, when we repeat any process again and again, the ‘what if’ becomes part of an iterative process essential to solution finding. Creativity is iterative. Each time we ask ‘what if’…. we consider a new possibility which may come to life in a new process, product, service or solution. Or maybe even a new ‘you’.

Ask yourself ‘what if’?’ and see what’s possible.

Counterfactually and creatively yours…