Thinking About What Could Have Been
Despite the advice of innumerable life coaches, we can’t help but compare ourselves to others and think hypothetically. We seem to only understand ourselves in context, and one of those contexts is the world of “what if” and “if only.”
Oftentimes, we gauge our happiness and satisfaction by thinking about how things could have gone better or worse. This style of thinking is counterfactual thinking, and it’s all about what didn’t happen.
To show the prevalence of counterfactual thinking, Thomas Gilovich and his colleagues analyzed the reactions of athletes in the 1992 Summer Olympics. They wanted to know who was happier: athletes who took 2nd place silver medals or athletes who took 3rd place bronze medals.
Rationally, the silver medalists should be happier because they did better! If they based their satisfaction on their objective performance, they should be more satisfied. But if athletes use counterfactual thinking, then the silver medalists may be less happy than the bronze medalists.
To understand why, consider what each of them must have been thinking. The silver medalist is thinking, “I could have gotten the gold! I came so close!” This is an upward counterfactual, which is thinking about how things could have been better.
The bronze medalist, though, is thinking, “I got an Olympic medal! I was so close to not getting one, but I have one!” This a downward counterfactual, which is thinking about how things could have been worse.
The researchers went through all the TV coverage of the 1992 Summer Olympics and made clips of every recorded instance of a silver or bronze medalist at the moment they finished their event (i.e., when they first found out how they did) and as they were receiving their medals.
They took these clips and gave them to a bunch of people who didn’t know who got silver medals or bronze medals. They watched these clips without sound and simply rated how happy each person in the videos seemed, from “agony” to “ecstasy.”
When they analyzed all of those ratings, the researchers found a clear case of counterfactual thinking. Across all of these silver and bronze medalists, the emotions of the 3rd place bronze medalists appeared much happier than the emotions of the 2nd place silver medalists.
Counterfactual thinking, of course, isn’t just the stuff of Olympic athletes. We all succumb to such thinking at one point or another. Keep in mind, though, that downward counterfactual thinking feels a whole lot better than upward counterfactual thinking, so for the sake of your own happiness, be sure to consider how things could be much, much worse than they are right now.
For more on counterfactual thinking, check out: “Why Have Regret?”
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