If only I had married someone else…

What is the one concept that you can adopt to make your thinking more scientific? Ph.D. students mull over this concept for long. However, you don’t need to do that. You can easily apply this concept to your everyday life situations and improve your thinking.

The concept in academic research, and in scientific thinking which I am talking about is “Counterfactual”. Simply stated, counterfactual indicates what would have happened if something was different from current reality.

For example, say you want to know what is the effect when red colored chemical A is added to blue colored chemical B. If you have a beaker full of chemical B and you add A to the entire beaker, you do not have a counterfactual. You are assuming that chemical B would have remained blue. But what if chemical B would have lost its color over time?

Thinking scientifically

If you are scientific in your thinking, you would construct a counterfactual when you mix the two. The counterfactual is the scenario when chemical B was not mixed with chemical A. The correct way to do this experiment is – divide your chemical B into two halves. In one-half, you add chemical A and in one-half, you don’t. Now you have a counterfactual to answer what is the effect of adding, compared to not adding. You can now make a valid conclusion.

You might think this is such a simple concept. But consider it again. Do you think like this in your everyday life? For example, have you ever thought, “If only I had married that person instead of my spouse, my life would have been better”? Can you make such a conclusion without having observed the true counterfactual? This type of thinking is called Counterfactual thinking and is not scientific.

Counterfactual thinking often leads to negative emotions. If you compare your reality to a worse alternative though, counterfactual thinking can lead to positive emotions and gratitude. But even then, it is best to always avoid counterfactual thinking.

Counterfactual thinking can be harmful to you and quite irritating to others. Do you know a person who always stays in the past, saying “I should have done that instead of this”? Or even worse, “You should have done that instead of this”. It is easy to escape from reality going to an imaginary alternative universe, but it is harmful too. You always have to make decisions with incomplete information, and many times your decisions will be wrong. But recourse to counterfactual thinking is not the solution. Anytime you notice yourself thinking “if I had done that, my reality would be better”, stop right there and remind yourself that you are falling into the trap of counterfactual thinking.

Now that you know the concept of counterfactual, you know that a proper counterfactual is impossible to observe when it comes to decisions in life and you CANNOT know what the alternative choice would have led to. So it is better to accept the present as it is, work towards a better future, and not take fake comfort in counterfactual thinking. This will make not only your life better but of others around you too.

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