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