Are you a daydreamer? Where do your daydreams take you? Sometimes you might picture silly things, like your teacher riding on a teeny-tiny tractor (my apologies if you just did). However, some of your daydreams may seem more realistic. Both adults and kids get swept up imagining how things could have turned out differently in their lives. With a little brain power, we invent and investigate new possibilities for what could have been. This type of imagining, called counterfactual thinking, is common and it usually strikes when we are thinking back on our past experiences. Interestingly, applying counterfactual thinking might spur our scientific reasoning skills and help us make smarter decisions. Let us take a look at what we know about counterfactual thinking and why it may be a unique mental superpower!
Introducing Counterfactual Thinking!
Do you ever find yourself deep in thought, wondering what life would be like if things had happened differently? Like many people, your mind may have drifted toward interesting or positive experiences that you could have had, if what actually happened to you did not happen. Picture this—what if your family had moved to a faraway place many years ago? You would have gone to another school, formed different friendships, and maybe explored fascinating places or tried interesting hobbies. How might those experiences have impacted you today? This is an example of counterfactual thinking, which is the natural tendency to dream up alternative ways that the past could have unfolded .
When psychologists study counterfactual thinking, they are really trying to answer questions about how and why humans use imagination . Many scientists are intrigued by the idea that imagination does not run totally wild like many people assume, but instead pushes us to picture things that are similar to reality . We do this by mentally deleting or adding details to our everyday experiences. Because the scenes we come up with are usually close to our reality, imagination can give us clues about which choices we should actually make . This connection to real life makes counterfactual thinking an especially important research topic.
Who Uses Counterfactual Thinking and How?
We know that adults use counterfactual thinking easily and often. However, researchers once questioned whether kids can also engage in counterfactual thinking. Why? Because it requires a lot of the brain’s energy and needs skills that get stronger as we grow older. For one thing, counterfactual thinking makes use of the brain’s executive functions. These skills monitor and control our thoughts and behaviors, to help us reach our goals . When we think counterfactually, executive functions make sure we set aside our ideas of what happened so that we can focus on imagining new possibilities . Since executive functions continue developing until we are adults , our counterfactual thinking skills may do the same. Counterfactual thinking also involves episodic memory , which holds onto memories of events that have happened in our lives. Tapping into episodic memory helps us to recall information about scenarios we have been in and to picture them. Younger kids might have difficulty remembering pieces of the past, meaning it could take time before our memories are vivid enough to build on using imagination. Executive functions and episodic memory are complicated skills for the brain to master and juggle!
Research from our laboratory at the University of Toronto has found that kids as young as 4 and 5 years old are able to think counterfactually like adults, if the task is not too complicated . In this study, we showed 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds a simple machine that lights up when green or blue blocks are placed on top. When red blocks are placed on top, nothing happens. After children learned what each block does, an actor put two blocks on the box at the same time and asked what would have happened if she did not put a certain block on top.
Test Your Counterfactual Thinking Skills
Can you play along like one of our participants by looking at Figure 1? In Figure 1A, the actor put a green block and a blue block on the machine and it lit up. Remember that both green and blue blocks make the machine light up. Now, consider this counterfactual question: what would have happened if the actor did not put the green block on the machine? Would it still have lit up?
Let us try Figure 1B next, in which the actor put a green block and a red block on the machine. Remember that green blocks make the machine light up, but red blocks do not. Now think about the same counterfactual question again: what would have happened if the actor did not put the green block on the machine? Would it still have lit up?
In Figure 1A (green + blue), you probably said the machine would still have lit up, while in Figure 1B (green + red), you probably said the machine would not have lit up if the actor did not put the green block on it. In our study, we found that 4- and 5-year-olds answered these questions correctly, but 3-year-olds did not. This task might seem easy to you, but it is trickier for younger kids. They must remember what happened (using episodic memory) but set aside their knowledge of the green block (using executive functions) to arrive at an answer. The fact that 4-year-olds can answer these questions shows that they can think about simple counterfactual scenarios. These abilities continue to grow as children get older and can think about increasingly complex events related to reality—like what life would be like if you had moved somewhere new!
When do we Use Counterfactual Thinking and Why?
Psychologists are still learning about and debating why humans engage in counterfactual thinking. Sometimes we use counterfactual thinking simply to satisfy our curiosity, imagining “what if?” as a mini mental experiment . We might picture ourselves getting a surprise blueberry pancake breakfast in the morning instead of our usual oatmeal, or we might imagine our reaction if we spotted a spider on our spoon before taking a bite! Other times, we might use counterfactual thinking in a way that helps us identify the cause and effect of events , like scientists do when thinking up hypotheses and designing experiments. We could imagine how the sight of a spider on our spoon would cause us to drop food onto the floor, with the effect of creating a mess! Picturing this counterfactual scenario could then spark our scientific reasoning skills , leading us to hypothesize that spiders on spoons always give people a fright, which can result in a food-spattered floor. (We would not recommend testing this out on your friends, by the way!) These examples make it clear that we do not think counterfactually just to escape reality. It is an incredible tool that we use to make connections in our own lives and to better understand the world around us.
Counterfactual thinking may also help us to learn from our past mistakes. Psychologists have found that counterfactual thoughts mostly pop up when we people remember something negative that happened to them, especially if they feel emotions like regret or guilt about what they did to get into that situation . Try remembering a negative experience you have had. Maybe you accidentally hurt a friend’s feelings or did not do your best on a test at school (like in Figure 2). You might even feel regretful thinking about that moment…kicking your counterfactual thinking into gear! You are likely to think of what you could have said or done instead, to avoid the negative outcome.
So, visualizing ways to reach outcomes that are more positive really could be helping humans stay happier and healthier . This means that counterfactual thinking might be an adaptive trait, allowing us to thrive in our environments. Can you even imagine what life would be like if humans had never developed counterfactual thinking? Inventing counterfactual possibilities is not only a way to explore exciting alternate realities, but also a mental superpower that makes for a brighter future in the real world. So, keep on dreaming! Your daydreams might be teaching you important lessons and pushing you to act in more adaptive ways. That is, if you are not too busy picturing completely silly things or the pancakes in your counterfactual dreams!
Counterfactual Thinking: ↑ Involves imagining how past events could have happened differently. People do this when reflecting on their experiences, thinking up a change to a scenario and picturing how this change would make things turn out.
Executive Functions: ↑ A set of mental skills that focus our attention and guide our thoughts and actions to help us complete tasks.
Episodic Memory: ↑ The brain’s ability to store information about past events, which we use to recall what has happened in our lives.
Cause and Effect: ↑ The relationship between events when one event is the result of another.
Scientific Reasoning: ↑ Using logical thinking and problem-solving skills to devise and test scientific questions/theories.
Adaptive: ↑ Supporting the wellbeing and functioning of a creature, whether animal or human.
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
This work was supported by the SSHRC Insight Development grant, awarded to AN and Patricia A. Ganea. The authors would like to thank the Language and Learning Lab team for their words of encouragement and to Liam Hall for designing the figures.
 ↑ De Brigard, F., and Parikh, N. 2019. Episodic counterfactual thinking. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 28:59–66. doi: 10.1177/0963721418806512
 ↑ Byrne, R. M. J. 2016. Counterfactual thought. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 67:135–57. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-122414-033249
 ↑ Roese, N. J., and Epstude, K. 2017. The functional theory of counterfactual thinking: new evidence, new challenges, new insights. Adv. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 56:1–79. doi: 10.1016/bs.aesp.2017.02.001
 ↑ Beck, S. R., Riggs, K. J., and Gorniak, S. L. 2009. Relating developments in children’s counterfactual thinking and executive functions. Think. Reason. 15:337–54. doi: 10.1080/13546780903135904
 ↑ Nyhout, A., and Ganea, P. A. 2019. Mature counterfactual reasoning in 4- and 5-year-olds. Cognition. 183:57–66. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2018.10.027