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Counterfactual Thinking

Definition

Counterfactual thoughts focus on how the past might have been, or the present could be, different. These thoughts are usually triggered by negative events that block one's goals and desires. Counterfactual thoughts have a variety of effects on emotions, beliefs, and behavior, with regret being the most common resulting emotion.

Counterfactual means, literally, contrary to the facts. Sometimes counterfactuals revolve around how the present could be different (“I could be at the movies instead of studying for this exam”). More frequent, however, are counterfactual thoughts of what might have been, of what could have happened had some detail, or action, or outcome been different in the past. Whenever we say “if only” or “almost,” or use words like “could,” “would,” or “should,” we may be expressing ...

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