Should Have, Would Have, Could Have

Profs. Laura Kray and Philip Tetlock reveal the power of counterfactual reflection

Prof. Kray
Prof. Kray

"If only I had…" Almost everyone has said those four words at some time.

According to a new study, such 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.

Prof. Tetlock
Prof. Tetlock

The study was conducted by Haas School professors Laura Kray and Philip Tetlock; Linda George, a UC Berkeley psychology doctoral student; Katie Liljenquist, Brigham Young University; Adam Galinsky, Northwestern University; and Neal Roese, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “From What Might Have Been to What Must Have Been: Counterfactual Thinking Creates Meaning” will be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology this year. “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.

Kray says counterfactual reflection about pivotal moments in the past helps people 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 misses the train.

“The irony is that thinking counterfactually increases the perception that life’s path was meant to be, which ultimately imbues one’s life with significance,” says Kray.

The team conducted experiments with student volunteers to discover how counterfactual thinking heightens the meaning 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 not have 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 counterfactual participants viewed their friendships as more meaningful and fated. The factual group did not experience that feeling of significance and destiny.

The researchers produced similar results when asking students to identify a turning point — or quintessential “fork in the road” moment — in their lives.

“Getting people to think counterfactually helps them 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. Combined with Kray’s earlier work showing that people who think counterfactually are more analytical, counterfactual reflection is proving to be a powerful tool in organizational settings.

“How we react to counterfactuals is a great test of how open- or closed-minded we are on a topic,” adds Tetlock, who has studied how people think about what-if scenarios at the organizational and even country level. “In my book Expert Political Judgment, I find that the more imaginatively experts think about possible pasts, the better calibrated they are in attaching realistic probabilities to possible futures.”