Counterfactual Thinking:

Today I missed the 6:30 am LADOT bus. To make matters worse I just barely missed it, I
was pulling up as it was pulling away. I felt a little better knowing that the next bus was going
to show up in fifteen minutes, but those fifteen minutes could make me late for class! “If only
I had left the house a minute earlier, if only I hadn’t waited for that piece of toast.”

Cognitive psychologists have attempted to explain why a great deal of emotion often
surrounds events with nearly missed alternative endings. As I asked myself “what if I had
just left a minute earlier?” I was engaged in “counter factual thinking.” This type of thinking
occurs when a person experiences an event and then, due to some characteristic of the
event, imagines an alternative outcome for it.  According to psychological theory the
discrepancy between the two outcomes elicits an emotional response.

The closeness of the counterfactual, the mutability and the abnormality of the situation all
impact our emotional responses to counterfactual situations.  In other words my experience
was a particularly good example of a counter factual experience because I was affected by
the consequence of the situation at hand, because it could have easily been changed, and
because I very rarely miss the bus.

In missing the bus I narrowly missed a positive outcome, and I in turn felt regret. Narrowly
missing a negative outcome, on the other hand, often makes people happy, grateful, or
particularly lucky.
After catching the next bus to school, I entered the room for my first class of the day and sat
down right before the professor called my name. You can imagine that I felt very lucky and
very happy to have made it to class, just on time.  

The psychologists that describe and analyze counterfactual thinking would say that I would
not have been quite as glad if I had shown up at the beginning of the role call as I was when
I just barely made it in time for my name.
Organization for the Advancement of   
Interdisciplinary Learning