Counterfactual thinking is a term of psychology that describes the tendency people have to imagine alternatives to reality. Humans are predisposed to think about how things could have turned out differently if only..., and also to imagine what if?. Counterfactuals are conditional propositions, containing an antecedent and a consequence (e.g., If Matt had run, he would have caught the bus.)
Counterfactual literally means, contrary to the facts. A counterfactual thought occurs when a person modifies a factual antecedent and then assesses the consequences of that mutation. A person may imagine how an outcome could have turned out differently, if the antecedents that led to that event were different. For example, a person may reflect upon how a car accident could have turned out by imagining how some of the antecedents could have been different, that is by imagining a counterfactual conditional, where the consequence is preceded by the conditional, beginning with "if" e.g., if only I hadn't been speeding... or the same even if I had been going slower.... People can imagine alternatives that are better or worse than reality, e.g., if only I hadn't been speeding, my car wouldn't have been wrecked or if I hadn't been wearing a seatbelt I would have been killed. Counterfactual thoughts have been shown to produce negative emotions, however they may also produce functional or beneficial effect. These counterfactual thoughts can affect people's emotions, such causing them to experience regret, guilt, relief, or satisfaction, their social ascriptions such as blame and responsibility, and their causal judgments.
The origin of counterfactual thinking has philosophical roots and can be traced back to early philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato who pondered the epistemological status of subjunctive suppositions and their nonexistent but feasible outcomes. In the seventeenth century, the German philosopher, Leibniz, argued that there could be an infinite number of alternate worlds, so long as they were not in conflict with laws of logic. The well known philosopher Nicholas Rescher (as well as others) has written about the interrelationship between counterfactual reasoning and modal logic. The relationship between counterfactual reasoning based upon modal logic may also be exploited in literature or Victorian Studies, painting and poetry.Ruth M.J. Byrne in The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality (2005) proposed that the mental representations and cognitive processes that underlie the imagination of alternatives to reality are similar to those that underlie rational thought, including reasoning from counterfactual conditionals.