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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

The part played by 'What ifs?' and 'If onlys'...

A view towards Hell Bay, Bryher, Isles of Scilly

Terry Martin takes a deep dive into 'Counterfactual thinking':

We often find ourselves wondering about how certain events in the past might have turned out differently by asking questions such as “What if?” and “If only...”. By doing so we are engaging in counterfactual thinking, which is,

a concept in psychology that involves the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred; something that is contrary to what actually happened. Counterfactual thinking is, as it states: “counter to the facts”.1

“Counterfactuals are “what could have been.” They are the roads not taken, or the alternative realities.”2 As the poet Robert Frost wrote in his poem The Road Not Taken,

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.3

To deliberately choose the more difficult option in life requires courage and determination. A distinction is sometimes made between upward counterfactual thinking and downward counterfactual thinking.

Upward counterfactual thinking focuses on how the situation could have been better. Since people often think about what they could have done differently, it is not uncommon for people to feel regret during upward counterfactual thinking.1

Asking ourselves “What if?” about certain events in the past can certainly arouse feelings of regret, but these do not necessarily need to be negative. We can learn useful lessons so that next time it can be different. We can also gain consolation by contemplating even worse outcomes than actually occurred.

Downward counterfactual thinking focuses on how the situation could have been worse. In this scenario, a person can make themselves feel better about the outcome because they realize that the situation is not the worst it could be.1

To engage in counter factual thinking is to speak in the subjunctive mood, “the sentence construction used when discussing wishes, hopes, and other hypothetical situations.”4 The subjunctive is a grammatical mood,

… a feature of the utterance that indicates the speaker's attitude toward it. Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as: wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred; … The subjunctive is one of the irrealis moods, which refer to what is not necessarily real. It often contrasted with the indicative, a realis mood which is used principally to indicate that something is a statement of fact.5

As he was approaching his death, Jesus said to his disciples:

'I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.'6

May have peace is in the subjunctive mood.

So how does may have peace move out of the subjunctive into the indicative? How does "may have" become "have"? By faith.7

Faith, as the writer to the Hebrews put it “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”8 Faith enables the counterfactual to become factual, the imagined to become real.


6. John 16:33, ESV

8. Hebrews 11:1, ESV

Terry Martin is a trustee of the Southampton-based charity Caraway, a Christian charity that promotes and celebrates the wisdom and richness of old age.




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