Counterfactual thinking

Adapted from Byrne (2016).

People spontaneously create counterfactual alternatives to reality when they think “if only” or “what if” and imagine how the past could have been different. The mind computes counterfactuals for many reasons. Counterfactuals explain the past and prepare for the future, they implicate various relations including causal ones, and they affect intentions and decisions. They modulate emotions such as regret and relief, and they support moral judgments such as blame. The loss of the ability to imagine alternatives as a result of injuries to the prefrontal cortex is devastating. The basic cognitive processes that compute counterfactuals mutate aspects of the mental representation of reality to create an imagined alternative, and people compare alternative representations. The ability to create counterfactuals develops throughout childhood and contributes to reasoning about other people’s beliefs, including their false beliefs. Knowledge affects the plausibility of a counterfactual through the semantic and pragmatic modulation of the mental representation of alternative possibilities.

When people imagine how episodes from their past could have been better or worse, fMRI results show that the likely counterfactuals activate the same core brain network as episodic recollections, whereas unlikely counterfactuals require more imaginative work (e.g., De Brigard et al. 2013). Similarly, people visually read or aurally heard some real-world information such as, “The motor is switched off today,” and they considered counterfactuals such as “If the motor had been switched on today, would it have burned fuel?” or ordinary conditionals such as “If the motor was switched on yesterday, did it burn fuel?” People appear to simulate an imagined alternative to reality by constructing mental models. They construct parsimonious mental representations because of the limitations of human working memory, and they tend to envisage possibilities that are true or are assumed temporarily to be true.

The architecture of cognition imposes limitations on the nature of the counterfactuals that people create. Counterfactuals are limited by working memory restrictions on the nature and complexity of the alternative possibilities that can be envisaged. But, notwithstanding these limitations on performance, counterfactuals free our minds from facts to allow a consideration of myriad other possibilities



Ruth Byrne, Felipe De Brigard, Orlando Espino, Caren Frosch, Vittorio Girotto, Phil Johnson-Laird, Paulo Legrenzi, Juan García-Madruga, Sergio Moreno-Rios, Ana Cristina Quelhas, Carlos Santamaria


Recent papers

  • Byrne, R. M. (2016). Counterfactual thought. Annual Review of Psychology67, 135-157.
  • De Brigard, F., Szpunar, K.K., & Schacter, D.L. (2013). Coming to grips with the past effect of repeated simulation
    on the perceived plausibility of episodic counterfactual thoughts. Psychological Science, 24, 1329–34
  • Dixon, J., Byrne, & R.M.J. (2011). “If only” counterfactual thoughts about exceptional actions. Memory & Cognition, 39, 1317– 31.
  • Girotto, V., Ferrante, D., Pighin, S., & Gonzalez, M. (2007). Postdecisional counterfactual thinking by actors and readers. Psychological Science, 18, 510–15.
  • Girotto, V., Legrenzi, P., & Rizzo, A. (1991). Event controllability in counterfactual thinking. Acta Psychologica, 78, 111–33.
  • Frosch, C.A. & Byrne, R.M.J. (2012). Causal conditionals and counterfactuals. Acta Psychologica, 14, 54–66.
  • Moreno-Rios, S., Garcia-Madruga, J., & Byrne, R.M.J. (2008). Semifactual “even if” reasoning. Acta Psychologica, 128, 197– 209.
  • Pighin, S., Byrne, R.M.J., Ferrante, D., Gonzalez, M., & Girotto, V. (2011). Counterfactual thoughts about experienced, observed, and narrated events. Thinking & Reasoning, 17, 197–211.
  • Quelhas, A.C. & Byrne, R.M.J. (2003). Reasoning with deontic and counterfactual conditionals. Thinking & Reasoning, 9, 43–65.
  • Santamaria, C., Espino, O., & Byrne, R.M.J. (2005). Counterfactual and semifactual conditionals prime alternative possibilities. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 31, 1149–54.