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What is counterfactual thinking? The psychology of counterfactual reasoning.


Counterfactual thinking is essentially thinking contrary to the facts. It is a cognitive process that relates to considerations about events that have not occurred.

What is counterfactual thinking and what personality traits are associated with it?


Why is counterfactual thinking important? Counterfactual thoughts affect human emotions, beliefs, and behavior. And what about prefactual thinking? These concepts are interrelated, and both are in turn closely related to our personality.

Counterfactual thinking consists of the mental simulation of alternative outcomes that could have taken place in the past but did not, while prefactual thinking is the simulation of potential alternatives in a future situation.


What is Counterfactual Thinking?


As we have already introduced, counterfactual thinking consists of the mental simulation of different alternatives that could have occurred in the past, but ultimately did not take place.  We have mentioned that on the contrary, prefactual thinking consists of the mental simulation of potential alternatives to the same situation, but which have not taken place yet. 

In this article we are going to talk about the characteristics related to counterfactual thinking  and prefactual thinking, and also provide a brief explanation of the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events, and its relation to different human personality traits.


Counterfactual thinking, prefactual thinking and personality


It is possible to assume that the type of thoughts that arise in our mind may depend on the type of personality we have. In turn, these thoughts can generate a series of emotions and sensations in us. In the article Looking Behind and Looking Ahead: Personality Differences in Counterfactual and Prefactual Thinking (2020), the relationship between these two types of thoughts and personality traits, and what emotions can be generated from these thoughts, is discussed. The article puts counterfactual thinking and prefactual thinking in the context of different personality parameters or traits, the so-called the Big Five personality traits.


The five major personality traits


The five major personality traits, commonly known as Big Five Personality traits or the Five-Factor Model (FFM), are the five factors or personality traits according to which human personality is conceptualized by researchers and clinical specialists. The concept of the Big Five was postulated by the British psychologist Raymond Bernard Cattell (1905-1998), whose work focused on the study of intelligence and personality. These traits or factors are also known as the 'dimensions' of personality. The model is also known as the acronym OCEAN:


  • Factor O - related to the capacity of openness to new experiences

  • Factor C - related to the degree of conscientiousness

  • Factor E - related to the degree of extroversion

  • Factor A - related to the capacity to agreeableness 

  • Factor N - related to the degree neuroticism (emotional instability)


In regard to these personality traits, it is important to remember that they are not clear cut categories. Each of these personality characteristics is formed by a set of more specific personality traits.


For example, factor A (agreeableness), in includes respect, tolerance and tranquility, factor C (conscientiousness), constitutes discipline, organization, and the ability to concentrate, and factor N (neuroticism) includes characteristics of obsession, insecurity, anxiety, and restlessness, among others.


How do counterfactual types of thinking relate to personality?


The most recent research about the association between types of thinking and personality, highlights the relationship between counterfactual and prefactual thinking and the five personality traits, and shows how people differ in their thinking depending on which personality traits they exhibit more often. The study showed that counterfactual thinking is more common in people with a high degree of neuroticism (factor N) and low degree of agreeableness (factor A). These  results suggest that less sociable people are more prone to engage in counterfactual thinking; imagine and analyze the possible alternatives of past events.  Moreover, people characterised by high degree of neuroticism usually focus their attention on avoiding possible threats, so they are obligated to analyze a lot of past life events.  On the contrary, the study has shown that prefactual thinking is more frequent in people with a less neurotic tendency, greater agreeableness and a greater degree of extroversion. In other words, people who are less neurotic and have better adjusted social skills tend to think more about potential alternatives to future situations.


What is the association between counterfactual thinking and human emotions?


The recent study suggest that repentance for past actions can give rise to what has been called hot emotions, which are emotions of anger, frustration and shame. Interestingly, it has also been shown that those people with a greater tendency to lie tend to generate more counterfactual thoughts. This is because some forms of lying require the imagination of an alternative to past events.

This data supports the idea that negative emotions are closely related to 'living' in the past and not moving forward and positive emotions are more linked to future goals, dreams, and potential options.

Counterfactual thought and emotional stability

We have seen how counterfactual thinking is related to personality, and by extension, how personality - which encompasses emotions, feelings, abilities, skills, limitations, character, etc. - is closely linked to the type of thinking we develop and our subsequent emotional state.

This thinking can be more focused on the past and on obsolete possibilities, or it can be more focused on the future and its potential alternatives. In any case, we must not forget that personality is not a solid and clear-cut categories board, but rather a matrix of nuances where we can possess different traits in different degrees of intensity. This is the reason why, throughout life an individual, is very likely to engage in both counterfactual and prefactual thinking - regretting the past and planning for the future. The balance between the two is one of the keys to emotional stability according to experts.


Sources:


  1. Bacon, A.M., Clare R. Walsh, Raluca A. Briazu. (2020). Looking Behind and Looking Ahead: Personality Differences in Counterfactual and Prefactual Thinking. Imagination, Cognition and Personality.

  2. De Brigard, Felipe, and Natasha Parikh. (2019). Episodic counterfactual thinking. Current Directions in Psychological Science.

  3. Bacon, A. M., Clare R. Walsh., Martin, L. (2013). Fantasy proneness and counterfactual thinking. Personality & Individual Differences.

  4. De Raad, B. (2000). The Big Five Personality Factors: The psycholexical approach to personality. Hogrefe & Huber Publishers.

  5. Payir, Ayse, and Robert Guttentag. (2019). Counterfactual thinking and age differences in judgments of regret and blame. Journal of experimental child psychology.