If Only: How to Turn Regret into Opportunity

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If you spend a lot of time thinking about “what might have been,” you’re not alone. In If Only, Neal Roese, Ph.D., one of the world’s top scientists studying regret, shows us that thoughts about what might have been are practically unavoidable. In fact, they are produced spontaneously by the brain with a very practical goal—to guide us toward improvement. But the same thoughts can bring the pain of regret. Is it worth the pain to get the improvement? Or should you live life with...

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Overview

If you spend a lot of time thinking about “what might have been,” you’re not alone. In If Only, Neal Roese, Ph.D., one of the world’s top scientists studying regret, shows us that thoughts about what might have been are practically unavoidable. In fact, they are produced spontaneously by the brain with a very practical goal—to guide us toward improvement. But the same thoughts can bring the pain of regret. Is it worth the pain to get the improvement? Or should you live life with no regrets?

Luckily, it’s not a package deal. The surprising message of If Only is that we can manage our regret style to maximize the gain and minimize the pain. In an entertaining and upbeat book that weds lively science writing to practical self-help, Dr. Roese mines the research and shares simple strategies for managing your life to make the most of regret. You’ll learn:

Don’t Over-react. You may react to a regrettable situation by taking many fewer chances. Don’t. This only ensures that you will miss out on new opportunities.
Think Downward. Consider the downward alternatives. How could a bad situation have gone even worse? This makes you feel appreciative of what you have.
Do It. If you decide to do something and it turns out badly, research shows that it probably won’t haunt you down the road. (You’ll reframe the failure and move on.) But you will regret the things left undone.
Regrets are Opportunities Knocking. Our brains produce the most “if only” thoughts about things in our lives that we can still change. So consider regret as a signal flashing: It’s not too late!

If Only
also shows that “if only” thinking plays a huge role across our lives, from how best to buy, to why we enjoy movies, how juries decide, and the way we choose someone to love. If Only opens a new window into the way our minds work and offers clear lessons for living more happily with the past.

“Fifteen years of research have been combined into a list of the top four biggest regrets of the average American:

• not getting more education
• career regrets
• regrets in love
• not spending enough time with kids

The list is essentially a summary of the biggest traps, pitfalls, and mistakes into which people like you might blunder. Look over the list and try to identify areas of your life that represent the greatest vulnerability to future regret. And act now to avoid regret later.”

—from If Only

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for If Only:

“Our pasts are full of regrets about what might have been and dreams about what could have been. In his entertaining and informative book, Neal Roese helps us to understand how and why we shape and attempt to alter the past. One thing is for sure: I have no regrets about reading If Only.”

—Daniel L. Schacter, William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor and Chair of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Seven Sins of Memory

“If only more scientists could write this well! For more than a decade, Neal Roese has been the leader in the scientific study of counterfactual thought, and in this wise, delightful book he demonstrates just how profoundly our mental lives are influenced by all those roads not taken. Solid insight and elegant prose make If Only a rare treat.”  —Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

Publishers Weekly
Who hasn't dwelled at some point on what they could have done differently? Such regrets can be demoralizing, but Roese suggests that we engage in this kind of counterfactual thinking all the time, and that it can be not only good for us but an essential component of how we act. Negative emotions like regret keep us from repeating mistakes and motivate us to improve. Roese, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, has plenty of studies at hand, but the most convincing passages are those that personalize the issues, like a look at the difference between silver medalists frustrated by their near-miss and bronze medalists who are happy to have a prize at all. Roese also takes examples from pop culture, including Marlon Brando's character in On the Waterfront, to show how we constantly imagine different lives for ourselves-and the author even shares his own career experiences to explain how regret can be harnessed to make positive decisions. In the long run, he advises, the old saw is true-you'll regret what you didn't do more than what you did, so don't be afraid to take chances. Recommended actions, such as bouncing back from adversity and maintaining perspective, are fairly commonsensical, but Roese's amiably chatty spin should make light bulbs click over quite a few readers' heads. Agent, Eileen Cope. (On sale Jan. 11) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
For those who dwell in the land of "what if" or "if only," there is hope: this type of thinking can be harnessed and used to spur people to problem solving and personal betterment. Roese (psychology, Univ. of Illinois) uses the term counterfactual thought to describe the notion of what could have but did not occur and discusses the role of counterfactuals in coping with tragedy, assigning blame, and finding meaning in life. The author provides a wealth of examples, e.g., the remorse of a drunk-driving accident in which individuals wished they had done something differently. He applies a set of six strategies to these problems to show how one can ride out the regret and benefit from it in the long run. It is difficult for a professor cum self-help writer to strike the right balance between a friendly and an academic style, and Roese tends to be too clinical at times. Nonetheless, this is, overall, an optimistic read that can help those suffering from missed opportunities and negative outcomes. Recommended for public libraries.-Deborah Bigelow, Leonia P.L., NJ Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767915779
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/11/2005
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.39 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Neal Roese is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois. He is recognized as one of the leading researchers on counterfactual thinking and regret, and his ongoing program of research is supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health. He lives with his wife and two children in Champaign, Illinois.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Benchmarking Reality

Terry Malloy, the Marlon Brando character in the 1954 film On the Waterfront, is a former boxer obsessed with a fight he deliberately lost because of mob pressure. If he hadn't taken a dive, he "could have been a contender," so he says in the film's signature line, "instead of a bum, which is what I am." Malloy's very identity hinges on a fork in the road and a particular road not taken, defined on the surface by a boxing victory but more deeply by a commitment to personal integrity that could have been, and yet may still possibly come to be. In short, Malloy defines the entirety of his life by the contrast to what he might have been. Of course, this makes for personal anguish, but the film also illuminates how a singular life-defining counterfactual can motivate positive change—by the end of the film, Malloy has risked his life to make a stand against mob influence at the dock where he works. Counterfactuals can be a defining aspect of personal identity. And as we'll see throughout this book, counterfactuals, even if painful, hold within them the power to push individuals toward regeneration and renewal.

Counterfactual thoughts provide benchmarks for reality. By offering standards of comparison (this happened instead of that), they place the factual events of our lives into context. An experience feels all the more precious, or all the more poignant, if it very nearly never happened. At the broadest level, people's sense of identity and personality can be shaped by forks in the road, by the lives they might have lived, the riches and disasters that might have been. At the unconscious level, each event in our lives gains meaning via a silent comparison to an alternative, counterfactual event that might have taken place instead. And at the level of our most passionate feelings, counterfactuals (along with other kinds of commonly drawn comparisons) sculpt the contours of our emotions, making us feel worse or better depending on what exactly might have been. On every level, thinking about what might have been shapes the very meaning we see in life.

Counterfactuals are a product of what might commonly be called imagination, but they are also much more. Certainly both counterfactual and imagination refer to creative, generative thought processes: thoughts that go boldly where no thoughts have gone before. But there are at least two important ways that counterfactuals stand apart from imagination.

First, we often assume that some people have a good imagination, say Walt Disney or Steven Spielberg, whereas many more of us possess at best mediocre imaginations, and some (a couple of my high school teachers come to mind at this point) little or none at all. But everyone generates counterfactuals. All of us, young and old, every day, with little difficulty. Counterfactuals are an automatic product of the normal operation of human brains.

Second, we tend to think of imagination as boundless, unrestrained, unrealistic. Maybe even silly. By contrast, counterfactuals are quite realistic. They are disciplined, in a way that preserves the essential fabric of reality while altering just one or a few elements. Of the numerous counterfactuals that you generate on a daily basis, nearly all are grounded in fact: What if I had driven a different route to work? I should have remembered to pack a lunch rather than having to spend money at the cafeteria. I shouldn't have had that piece of cake for dessert. Seen in this light, it is clear that rather few of our daily counterfactuals are bizarre: What if I attended a college on another planet? What if I had a flying car like on The Jetsons? It would be great if I had eight arms. Of course, we could imagine such things, if we put our minds to it, but the point is that we don't. At least not very often. Such bizarre creations require effort, whereas the typical counterfactual thoughts of everyday life are effortless. They appear so easily that we might even compare them to a reflex, like jerking your hand away from a hot stove. Counterfactuals are reflexive imagination. And most counterfactual thoughts are useful precisely because they are disciplined, realistic, and effortlessly efficient.(1) But when counterfactuals do require effort, that is, when they are spun into elaborate stories and speculations, they can have very different effects, useful for different purposes.

What if Kennedy had survived? We all know what actually happened: On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was killed by two rifle bullets as he was riding in a slow-moving open limousine through the streets of Dallas. But what if he had lived? What if the bullets had just grazed him? What if he had been rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital only to be given a couple of Band-Aids before returning to the White House and his presidency? Now, just mention these ideas at a party. You're sure to start a lively conversation. Sure, it's all speculative, for no one can know for sure what truly would have happened, but the conversation gets animated because counterfactuals fuel new insights, new points of view, new ways of looking at old facts.

If Kennedy had survived, America might have been a much different place. Maybe the urban riots and violent student protests could have been avoided. And what about Vietnam? Many people continue to this day to believe that had Kennedy been president a little bit longer, some fifty thousand American soldiers might not have died in Vietnam, that Kennedy would have found a way to steer America clear of that divisive war. Whenever we think about such counterfactual possibilities, we accept a tantalizing invitation to explore further and to follow a road of continuing assessment that may take us to new understandings we might not have achieved otherwise. Counterfactuals are cognigenic. This capacity of counterfactual thinking to launch us into further reveries of thought is one of several reasons why counterfactual stories are so entertaining—an idea to which we'll return in Chapter 6.

Avoiding Mishaps

How do you keep bad things from happening?

On July 25, 2000, a supersonic Concorde airliner crashed shortly after takeoff in Paris, killing all 109 people aboard and four more on the ground. Witnesses saw fire spewing from the plane's engines as it took off. It then sank from view. Not long after, horrific images of fire and wrecked metal filled television screens around the world, vividly reminding us all that air travel remains an inherently risky venture that can, occasionally, incinerate us beyond all recognition.

Immediately after the crash, investigators descended on the scene of the accident and began to examine, assess, and formulate working hypotheses about the cause of the crash. There is nothing unique about this. The same thing happens whenever there is a serious accident. Teams of specialists collect information with the specific goal of answering the question why. Why did this accident happen at this point in time, relative to other points in time that were accident-free?

This is a question of causation. And like any question of causation, it can be rephrased in counterfactual terms: How might the accident have been avoided?(2)

Causation is the Excalibur sword of science. In the tale of King Arthur, the magic sword Excalibur rendered its user all-powerful. In the same way, any person armed with an understanding of causation has the power to change, alter, repair, and control. Causal knowledge is the essential tool for changing the world for the better. This wisdom is contained in the medical adage of treating not merely the symptoms but the underlying cause: treat the cause and you defeat the illness, defeat the illness and you conclusively restore health. Accident investigators try to find the causes of accidents because such knowledge holds the power to prevent future accidents.

And so it was with the Concorde. Investigators compiled their evidence and concluded that a small piece of metal left on the runway from another jet was the ultimate cause of the accident. That tiny piece of metal punctured one of the plane's tires, which flung debris that ruptured a fuel tank, which ignited a fire that blocked the engines from producing the thrust needed to keep the plane in the air. So the plane fell. This is the causal explanation, a map detailing a chain of small events connected together, and it was immediately funneled into a series of engineering fixes that improved the remaining Concordes so that when they started flying commercially again in November 2001, they were even safer than before.(3)

This process—in which an accident triggers causal analysis which results in fixes that prevent future mishap—is one of the most important, basic, and automatic functions of human brains. Our brains do this constantly, and counterfactuals are a prominent marker of this process. The craving to undo a tragic event is a simple expression of our most basic urge toward survival, toward self-preservation. If we see danger ahead of us, we move out of its way. We try to avoid it. But when danger has already produced tragedy, we still try to avoid it, reflexively imagining how the tragedy might have been avoided. Along the way, such counterfactual musings on the past can prepare us to avoid similar tragedy in the future. That counterfactuals help us see the world more clearly by illuminating causation and avoidance is the first example of how counterfactuals are for betterment.(4)

Counterfactuals Shape Emotions

You might have noticed that there are two distinctly different kinds of counterfactuals. One makes us feel bad, the other makes us feel grateful. The kind that makes us feel bad is called an upward counterfactual. By upward, we mean that a comparison is made between a factual situation and something better, something more desirable, something that you would much prefer to have happen. Wishing that you'd ordered a more delicious meal, avoided a car accident, or married a richer spouse are all examples of upward counterfactuals. They are called upward because we look up to things desirable, such as a role model that we admire, and down on things undesirable. Accordingly, downward counterfactuals are thoughts about how things might have been worse.

When Terry Malloy said that he could have been a contender, he was expressing an upward counterfactual. And he felt bad. When an accident victim realizes that she is lucky to be alive, that she might have been killed, she is focusing on a downward counterfactual. And for this she feels relief, even gratefulness. You might be thinking that there are two kinds of people, those who see the glass as half full (optimists) and those who see the glass as half empty (pessimists). It would seem straightforward then to say that optimists see the past in terms of how it might have been worse (lucky things turned out as they did) whereas pessimists see how things could have been better. But the story is more complicated than that.(5)

For one thing, optimists are excited by the expectation of positive future events, and it is the tendency to generate upward rather than downward counterfactuals about the past that is most clearly linked to this sort of hopefulness (With a little more training, I know I could have finished that marathon; next time, I'll finish it for sure . . . ). And for most people, optimists or pessimists, research shows that upward counterfactuals come to mind far more often than downward counterfactuals.(6) Upward counterfactuals are common; downward counterfactuals are rare. To understand the emotional offshoots of these two kinds of thoughts, it helps to recognize a basic principle of psychology: the contrast effect.

Have you ever had a sip of hot tea immediately after eating ice cream? Probably the tea felt especially hot. Have you ever jumped into a swimming pool immediately after soaking in a hot tub? Probably the pool felt peculiarly cold, as though someone had forgotten to turn on the heat. These are all examples of one of the most basic of brain mechanisms involved in perception—the contrast effect. The experience that came just before alters the perception of what comes next—pushing it in the opposite, contrasting direction. In reality, the tea and the pool are the same as ever, they just feel hotter or colder because of the directly preceding experience.

Contrast effects occur everywhere, for all of our senses. Some of the earliest experiments beginning a hundred years ago used sets of weights, from a few ounces to several pounds. A one-pound weight feels light if you have just hefted a five-pound weight, but heavier if you've just palmed a one-ounce weight. The same effect occurs for light and dark, as you probably noticed the last time you walked out into a summer afternoon from a dark matinee movie theater—it sure is bright out! Perhaps more surprising, the same effect also occurs for value. How much we are willing to pay for a good or service depends quite a bit on context. Widely known to salespeople, for example, is that you are more likely to buy a small item—a handkerchief for $20, let's say—if you have just spent a much larger amount on a big-ticket item, like a $400 jacket. Compared to the $400 you've just blown, after all, what's an extra twenty bucks? But if you are in the store without any need for a new jacket, that $20 feels like quite a bit more, and you are much less likely to part with it.

Contrast effects are one reason why counterfactuals influence emotions. Counterfactuals alter our emotions, push them this way and that, by juxtaposing what is against what might have been. Just as the tea feels hotter next to ice cream, Terry Malloy's life as it is now seems pallid when positioned next to the life he might have led—a contender's—had he not taken a fall.

Contrast effects can alter our feelings of satisfaction in surprising ways. Take, for example, the emotional reactions of Olympic athletes who have just won medals. There they are on the medal stand, basking in the warmth of worldwide applause. And of course, the accolades are color-coded: Gold is best, the winner, the absolute champion. Silver is second-best: obviously talented enough to beat everyone save one. Bronze is third-best. And after that comes everyone else, medal-less. We all understand that these medals correspond to clear rankings of value, and certainly this understanding is clearest of all to the athletes themselves. Why then are bronze medalists more satisfied than silver medalists?

It took a team of social psychologists led by Vicki Medvec, working out of Cornell University, to even notice in the first place that bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists, but their research went even further in linking this curious fact both to counterfactual thinking and also to contrast effects. In one of their studies, they began by videotaping television coverage of the 1992 Olympic games held in Barcelona, Spain. They edited this video coverage down to a series of clips showing both the athletes' immediate reactions to their performances and also their participation in the medal stand ceremony (when the three medalists stand on boxes of varying height). They then showed these videotapes to a group of research participants, whose job was to evaluate each of the athletes' emotional reactions—selecting a number ranging from 1 (complete agony) to 10 (complete ecstasy). All participants had declared themselves uninterested in sports or Olympics at the outset, thus ensuring a relatively unbiased set of judgments. Sure enough, for both immediate reactions right after the winner was announced, and also for those delayed reactions on display during the medal ceremony, observers found the emotional expressions to be more ecstatic for the bronze than silver medalists. So far so good—this piece of evidence establishes the existence of a puzzle: bronze medalists are happier with an objectively poorer outcome. But it does not yet tell us why.(7)

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First Chapter

If Only


By Neal Roese, Ph.D.

Random House

Neal Roese, Ph.D.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0767920236


Chapter One

Chapter 1


Benchmarking Reality


Terry Malloy, the Marlon Brando character in the 1954 film On the Waterfront, is a former boxer obsessed with a fight he deliberately lost because of mob pressure. If he hadn't taken a dive, he "could have been a contender," so he says in the film's signature line, "instead of a bum, which is what I am." Malloy's very identity hinges on a fork in the road and a particular road not taken, defined on the surface by a boxing victory but more deeply by a commitment to personal integrity that could have been, and yet may still possibly come to be. In short, Malloy defines the entirety of his life by the contrast to what he might have been. Of course, this makes for personal anguish, but the film also illuminates how a singular life-defining counterfactual can motivate positive change--by the end of the film, Malloy has risked his life to make a stand against mob influence at the dock where he works. Counterfactuals can be a defining aspect of personal identity. And as we'll see throughout this book, counterfactuals, even if painful, hold within them the power to push individuals toward regeneration and renewal.

Counterfactual thoughts provide benchmarks for reality. By offering standards of comparison (this happened instead of that), they place the factual eventsof our lives into context. An experience feels all the more precious, or all the more poignant, if it very nearly never happened. At the broadest level, people's sense of identity and personality can be shaped by forks in the road, by the lives they might have lived, the riches and disasters that might have been. At the unconscious level, each event in our lives gains meaning via a silent comparison to an alternative, counterfactual event that might have taken place instead. And at the level of our most passionate feelings, counterfactuals (along with other kinds of commonly drawn comparisons) sculpt the contours of our emotions, making us feel worse or better depending on what exactly might have been. On every level, thinking about what might have been shapes the very meaning we see in life.


Counterfactuals are a product of what might commonly be called imagination, but they are also much more. Certainly both counterfactual and imagination refer to creative, generative thought processes: thoughts that go boldly where no thoughts have gone before. But there are at least two important ways that counterfactuals stand apart from imagination.

First, we often assume that some people have a good imagination, say Walt Disney or Steven Spielberg, whereas many more of us possess at best mediocre imaginations, and some (a couple of my high school teachers come to mind at this point) little or none at all. But everyone generates counterfactuals. All of us, young and old, every day, with little difficulty. Counterfactuals are an automatic product of the normal operation of human brains.

Second, we tend to think of imagination as boundless, unrestrained, unrealistic. Maybe even silly. By contrast, counterfactuals are quite realistic. They are disciplined, in a way that preserves the essential fabric of reality while altering just one or a few elements. Of the numerous counterfactuals that you generate on a daily basis, nearly all are grounded in fact: What if I had driven a different route to work? I should have remembered to pack a lunch rather than having to spend money at the cafeteria. I shouldn't have had that piece of cake for dessert. Seen in this light, it is clear that rather few of our daily counterfactuals are bizarre: What if I attended a college on another planet? What if I had a flying car like on The Jetsons? It would be great if I had eight arms. Of course, we could imagine such things, if we put our minds to it, but the point is that we don't. At least not very often. Such bizarre creations require effort, whereas the typical counterfactual thoughts of everyday life are effortless. They appear so easily that we might even compare them to a reflex, like jerking your hand away from a hot stove. Counterfactuals are reflexive imagination. And most counterfactual thoughts are useful precisely because they are disciplined, realistic, and effortlessly efficient.(1) But when counterfactuals do require effort, that is, when they are spun into elaborate stories and speculations, they can have very different effects, useful for different purposes.

What if Kennedy had survived? We all know what actually happened: On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was killed by two rifle bullets as he was riding in a slow-moving open limousine through the streets of Dallas. But what if he had lived? What if the bullets had just grazed him? What if he had been rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital only to be given a couple of Band-Aids before returning to the White House and his presidency? Now, just mention these ideas at a party. You're sure to start a lively conversation. Sure, it's all speculative, for no one can know for sure what truly would have happened, but the conversation gets animated because counterfactuals fuel new insights, new points of view, new ways of looking at old facts.

If Kennedy had survived, America might have been a much different place. Maybe the urban riots and violent student protests could have been avoided. And what about Vietnam? Many people continue to this day to believe that had Kennedy been president a little bit longer, some fifty thousand American soldiers might not have died in Vietnam, that Kennedy would have found a way to steer America clear of that divisive war. Whenever we think about such counterfactual possibilities, we accept a tantalizing invitation to explore further and to follow a road of continuing assessment that may take us to new understandings we might not have achieved otherwise. Counterfactuals are cognigenic. This capacity of counterfactual thinking to launch us into further reveries of thought is one of several reasons why counterfactual stories are so entertaining--an idea to which we'll return in Chapter 6.


Avoiding Mishaps


How do you keep bad things from happening?

On July 25, 2000, a supersonic Concorde airliner crashed shortly after takeoff in Paris, killing all 109 people aboard and four more on the ground. Witnesses saw fire spewing from the plane's engines as it took off. It then sank from view. Not long after, horrific images of fire and wrecked metal filled television screens around the world, vividly reminding us all that air travel remains an inherently risky venture that can, occasionally, incinerate us beyond all recognition.

Immediately after the crash, investigators descended on the scene of the accident and began to examine, assess, and formulate working hypotheses about the cause of the crash. There is nothing unique about this. The same thing happens whenever there is a serious accident. Teams of specialists collect information with the specific goal of answering the question why. Why did this accident happen at this point in time, relative to other points in time that were accident-free?

This is a question of causation. And like any question of causation, it can be rephrased in counterfactual terms: How might the accident have been avoided?(2)

Causation is the Excalibur sword of science. In the tale of King Arthur, the magic sword Excalibur rendered its user all-powerful. In the same way, any person armed with an understanding of causation has the power to change, alter, repair, and control. Causal knowledge is the essential tool for changing the world for the better. This wisdom is contained in the medical adage of treating not merely the symptoms but the underlying cause: treat the cause and you defeat the illness, defeat the illness and you conclusively restore health. Accident investigators try to find the causes of accidents because such knowledge holds the power to prevent future accidents.

And so it was with the Concorde. Investigators compiled their evidence and concluded that a small piece of metal left on the runway from another jet was the ultimate cause of the accident. That tiny piece of metal punctured one of the plane's tires, which flung debris that ruptured a fuel tank, which ignited a fire that blocked the engines from producing the thrust needed to keep the plane in the air. So the plane fell. This is the causal explanation, a map detailing a chain of small events connected together, and it was immediately funneled into a series of engineering fixes that improved the remaining Concordes so that when they started flying commercially again in November 2001, they were even safer than before.(3)

This process--in which an accident triggers causal analysis which results in fixes that prevent future mishap-is one of the most important, basic, and automatic functions of human brains. Our brains do this constantly, and counterfactuals are a prominent marker of this process. The craving to undo a tragic event is a simple expression of our most basic urge toward survival, toward self-preservation. If we see danger ahead of us, we move out of its way. We try to avoid it. But when danger has already produced tragedy, we still try to avoid it, reflexively imagining how the tragedy might have been avoided. Along the way, such counterfactual musings on the past can prepare us to avoid similar tragedy in the future. That counterfactuals help us see the world more clearly by illuminating causation and avoidance is the first example of how counterfactuals are for betterment.(4)


Counterfactuals Shape Emotions


You might have noticed that there are two distinctly different kinds of counterfactuals. One makes us feel bad, the other makes us feel grateful. The kind that makes us feel bad is called an upward counterfactual. By upward, we mean that a comparison is made between a factual situation and something better, something more desirable, something that you would much prefer to have happen. Wishing that you'd ordered a more delicious meal, avoided a car accident, or married a richer spouse are all examples of upward counterfactuals. They are called upward because we look up to things desirable, such as a role model that we admire, and down on things undesirable. Accordingly, downward counterfactuals are thoughts about how things might have been worse.

When Terry Malloy said that he could have been a contender, he was expressing an upward counterfactual. And he felt bad. When an accident victim realizes that she is lucky to be alive, that she might have been killed, she is focusing on a downward counterfactual. And for this she feels relief, even gratefulness. You might be thinking that there are two kinds of people, those who see the glass as half full (optimists) and those who see the glass as half empty (pessimists). It would seem straightforward then to say that optimists see the past in terms of how it might have been worse (lucky things turned out as they did) whereas pessimists see how things could have been better. But the story is more complicated than that.(5)

For one thing, optimists are excited by the expectation of positive future events, and it is the tendency to generate upward rather than downward counterfactuals about the past that is most clearly linked to this sort of hopefulness (With a little more training, I know I could have finished that marathon; next time, I'll finish it for sure . . . ). And for most people, optimists or pessimists, research shows that upward counterfactuals come to mind far more often than downward counterfactuals.(6) Upward counterfactuals are common; downward counterfactuals are rare. To understand the emotional offshoots of these two kinds of thoughts, it helps to recognize a basic principle of psychology: the contrast effect.

Have you ever had a sip of hot tea immediately after eating ice cream? Probably the tea felt especially hot. Have you ever jumped into a swimming pool immediately after soaking in a hot tub? Probably the pool felt peculiarly cold, as though someone had forgotten to turn on the heat. These are all examples of one of the most basic of brain mechanisms involved in perception--the contrast effect. The experience that came just before alters the perception of what comes next--pushing it in the opposite, contrasting direction. In reality, the tea and the pool are the same as ever, they just feel hotter or colder because of the directly preceding experience.

Contrast effects occur everywhere, for all of our senses. Some of the earliest experiments beginning a hundred years ago used sets of weights, from a few ounces to several pounds. A one-pound weight feels light if you have just hefted a five-pound weight, but heavier if you've just palmed a one-ounce weight. The same effect occurs for light and dark, as you probably noticed the last time you walked out into a summer afternoon from a dark matinee movie theater--it sure is bright out! Perhaps more surprising, the same effect also occurs for value. How much we are willing to pay for a good or service depends quite a bit on context. Widely known to salespeople, for example, is that you are more likely to buy a small item--a handkerchief for $20, let's say--if you have just spent a much larger amount on a big-ticket item, like a $400 jacket. Compared to the $400 you've just blown, after all, what's an extra twenty bucks? But if you are in the store without any need for a new jacket, that $20 feels like quite a bit more, and you are much less likely to part with it.

Contrast effects are one reason why counterfactuals influence emotions. Counterfactuals alter our emotions, push them this way and that, by juxtaposing what is against what might have been. Just as the tea feels hotter next to ice cream, Terry Malloy's life as it is now seems pallid when positioned next to the life he might have led--a contender's--had he not taken a fall.

Contrast effects can alter our feelings of satisfaction in surprising ways. Take, for example, the emotional reactions of Olympic athletes who have just won medals. There they are on the medal stand, basking in the warmth of worldwide applause. And of course, the accolades are color-coded: Gold is best, the winner, the absolute champion. Silver is second-best: obviously talented enough to beat everyone save one. Bronze is third-best. And after that comes everyone else, medal-less. We all understand that these medals correspond to clear rankings of value, and certainly this understanding is clearest of all to the athletes themselves. Why then are bronze medalists more satisfied than silver medalists?

It took a team of social psychologists led by Vicki Medvec, working out of Cornell University, to even notice in the first place that bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists, but their research went even further in linking this curious fact both to counterfactual thinking and also to contrast effects.

Continues...


Excerpted from If Only by Neal Roese, Ph.D. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2013

    This book really is amazing. It's very informative, and shows th

    This book really is amazing. It's very informative, and shows the science behind counterfactual thinking. It proves that we see counterfactual thinking everyday and can sometimes come to define a life. It gives very valuable examples and studies on the psychology of regret and counterfactuals in the first half of the book. The second half of the book is devoted completely to application, in areas such as gambling, buying, and living in general. It gives six very helpful strategies to take hold of regret. I found many lines quotable but I will share a paragraph from the introduction for potential buyers, "'If  only' thinking is good for you. Counterfactual thinking along with regret, its emotional offspring, plays a vital role in learning, insight, and improvement. From counterfactuals comes recognition of possibilities, out of regret comes hope for the future, and the essence of human cognition is a set of interlocking mechanisms designed to identify, understand, and fix the problems, both big and small, that appear constantly along the road of life. Regret feels bad, but it is utterly essential for healthy living. Understanding and harnessing your own regrets can make you better."

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