Good Reason to Dwell on What Might Have Been

Don’t beat yourself up for daydreaming about what would have happened if you’d chosen a different career, bought a different house, or committed to a different partner. Research suggests that thinking about what might have been helps us find meaning in past events we can no longer change.

Laura Kray of the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley is an expert in counterfactual research. In this clip from the Haas School, Kray discusses some of the research she will present at the 24th APS Annual Convention.

In one experiment, Kray and her coauthors asked participants to write about a turning point in their lives. One group was instructed to focus on what their lives would be like if that event had not happened. The second group was instructed to write only about the facts related to how, when, and with whom the turning point occurred.

“What we found is that the counterfactual reflection actually helped to solidify meaning rather than destroy it,” Kray says. “So going down the path of thinking about what might have been didn’t lead people to think that life is just chaotic and a product of chance, but rather helped them to see their lives as more meaningful.”

To learn more about counterfactual research, Hal E. Hershfield’s APS Rising Star profile discusses his research on how counterfactual reflection makes individuals feel more attached to groups and organizations. Kray and Hershfield have also collaborated to study the relationship between counterfactuals and employee loyalty. Their findings were published in Psychological Science.

Kray, L., George, L., Liljenquist, K., Galinsky, A., Tetlock, P., & Roese, N. (2010). From what might have been to what must have been: Counterfactual thinking creates meaning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98 (1), 106-118 DOI: 10.1037/a0017905

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