September 1, 2014

Should have, would have, could have … new research reveals the power of counterfactual reflection

Laura Kray
Laura Kray

Almost everyone has said these four words, “If only I had …” According to a new study, counterfactual thinking -- considering a ”turning point” moment in the past and alternate universes had it not occurred -- heightens one’s perception of the moment as significant, and even fated. Armed with a sense that life may not be arbitrary, counterfactual thinkers, the study suggests, are more motivated and analytical in organizational settings.

“What we found is that people indicate stronger commitment to an organization when they think counterfactually and it helps to define who they are on a professional level,” says Laura Kray, associate professor and Harold Furst Chair of Management Philosophy and Values, University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

The study was conducted by six scholars, including Kray’s colleague, Professor Philip Tetlock. “From What Might Have Been to What Must Have Been: Counterfactual Thinking Creates Meaning” is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (January 2010, Vol. 98 No. 1, 106-118). “For the first time, we demonstrate that counterfactual thoughts about one’s life have predictable consequences for how critical events and cherished relationships are understood," the authors write.

“Although you might think that counterfactually thinking is just going to lead me down a path of regret, it is actually very functional in terms of helping people establish relationships and make sense of cause and effect,” says Kray, “Counterfactual reflection about pivotal moments in the past helps people to weave a coherent life story.”

Kray notes the “what might have been” scenario is a popular narrative device, as developed in the 1998 film, Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The film reveals two story lines: what happens when Paltrow's character makes it through the “sliding doors” onto the train, and what happens when she doesn’t and misses the train. “The irony is that thinking counterfactually increases the perception that life’s path was meant to be,” says Kray, “which ultimately imbues one’s life with significance.” While one might argue that believers of destiny would be less inclined to be analytical, the research also found that people who think counterfactually and find meaning in their lives are more apt to believe life is not a product of chance and that they can make valuable choices.

Last year’s Slumdog Millionaire is another example of how counterfactual thinking and the power of destiny become intertwined. Kray explains the film’s game show scenes imply a counterfactual universe, where the main character may be unable to answer correctly and lose the game. The improbability of the orphan from the slums becoming a game show champion and winning 20 million rupees is consistent with the idea that counterfactual thinking heightens fate perceptions.

Kray and Tetlock were first intrigued by counterfactual thinking’s relationship with fate following the 2000 presidential election. Kray recalls conservative commentators talking about how it was evident George W. Bush was destined to be president, and there appeared to be no perception that the race could have just as easily gone the other way. The questions arose, “What is fate?”, “How do people think about it?”, and “Is fate incongruent with personal choice?”

The team conducted experiments with student volunteers to discover how counterfactual thinking heightens the meaningfulness of key life experiences. The researchers asked one group of students a question in which the language prompted counterfactual thinking; the other group was asked to respond only factually.

For example, when asked to write an essay on how they met a close friend, the counterfactual group was asked to explain all of the ways they might have not met this friend. The factual group was only asked to recount the factual details of the first encounter. When reflecting on the alternative -- never having become friends -- the participants who were prompted to think counterfactually viewed their friendships as more meaningful. The factual group did not experience that feeling of significance.

The researchers produced similar results when asking students to identify a turning point – or quintessential "fork in the road" moment -- in their lives in which a counterfactual world should seem most plausible and easy to imagine. Participants generated a wide range of events, including finding love and grieving the loss of a loved one. One group was asked how life would be if the turning point incident had never occurred. Another group only had to recount the turning point in factual terms. The group prompted to think counterfactually demonstrated an increased perception that the turning point was fated and thereby meaningful.

“Getting people to think counterfactually helps people see relations better and construct meaning in their lives,” says Kray. In the context of business, Kray says subsequent research led by Hal Ersner-Hershfield, visiting assistant professor at Northwestern University, found having a sense of meaning fosters organizational commitment. In combination with Kray’s earlier work showing that people who think counterfactually are more analytical, counterfactual reflection is proving to be a very powerful tool in organizational settings.

For many years, Tetlock has studied how people think about what-if scenarios at the level of organizations and even countries: Was a Microsoft-like monopoly inevitable? How easy is it to imagine delaying the rise of China by another 20 or even 50 years? What would have happened to the USA had the British captured and hanged George Washington early in the War of Independence?

“How we react to counterfactuals is a great test of how open or closed-minded we are on a topic,. Some people are so confident they know how history would have unfolded, they try to shut the conversation down fast. Others are willing to mull over imaginative possibilities at great length, “ says Tetlock, “In my work on “expert political judgment,” I find that the more imaginative experts think about possible pasts, the better calibrated they are in attaching realistic probabilities to possible futures.”

Tetlock is the Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Chair II in Leadership and Communication, Professor of Leadership, and authored the award-winning book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know (2005). Kray, who teaches negotiation, is the Harold Furst Chair in Management Philosophy and Values. The study is also co-authored by Linda George, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in psychology; Katie Liljenquist, Brigham Young University; Adam Galinsky, Northwestern University; and Neal Roese, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Watch Laura Kray talk about her research.
See the full paper.

Topics:    Research News