Phil Tetlock: How Counterfactual Thinking Creates Meaning
Abstract (Via Berkeley)
Four experiments explored whether 2 uniquely human characteristics—counterfactual thinking (imagining alternatives to the past) and the fundamental drive to create meaning in life—are causally related. Rather than implying a random quality to life, the authors hypothesized and found that counterfactual thinking heightens the meaningfulness of key life experiences. Reflecting on alternative pathways to pivotal turning points even produced greater meaning than directly reflecting on the meaning of the event itself. Fate perceptions (“it was meant to be”) and benefit-finding (recognition of positive consequences) were identified as independent causal links between counterfactual thinking and the construction of meaning. Through counterfactual reflection, the upsides to reality are identified, a belief in fate emerges, and ultimately more meaning is derived from important life events.
General Discussion (Via Berkeley)
Individuals create meaning in their lives, which affords great benefits to physical and psychological well-being (Frankl, 1963; Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Updegraff et al., 2008). Across four experiments, we have established a strong link between counterfactual thinking and the meaning derived from life events and relation- ships. Considering how pivotal events and relationships might have unfolded differently solidifies their meaning and significance in one’s life. By considering what might have been, individualsconstruct life stories that are more meaningful.This connection between counterfactual thought and meaning is driven by at least two psychological processes. Consistent with past research identifying the psychological benefits of constructing redemptive life stories (McAdams, 2006), individuals in the cur- rent set of experiments derived more meaning from critical life experiences when they perceived them to be the products of destiny. Rather than rendering reality a fluke, counterfactually undoing metaphorical forks in the path of life has an ironic effect of bolstering the sense that the actual path taken was fated. “What might have been” musings anchor reality with a sense of destiny. Like the hindsight certainty triggered by counterfactual reflection (Roese & Olson, 1996), highlighting the sheer improbability of an event’s occurrence through pondering its nonoccurrence rendered it as meant to be. These results suggest that perceptions of fate are a strong precursor to finding meaning; believing that an event was meant to be elevates its significance.