The solace of ‘At Least’ and the sting of ‘If Only’
From an article by Behavioral Scientist
The human ability to mentally travel through time and conjure incidents and outcomes that never happened enables what logicians call “counterfactual thinking”. Split the adjective in two and its meaning is evident; we can concoct events that run counter to the actual facts.
Two decades of research on counterfactual thinking exposes an oddity: thoughts about the past that make us feel better are relatively rare, while thoughts that make us feel worse are exceedingly common.
One of the clearest demonstrations of their impact comes from the Olympics. In a now famous study of the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Researchers at Cornell University and the University of Toledo collected videos of about three dozen silver and bronze medallists. They presented the videos to a group of participants who didn’t know much about sports and hadn’t paid attention to the games. Participants observed the athletes, but not during competitions. They watched them—with the final results hidden—in the immediate aftermath of their events and on the medal podium. Then they rated the competitors’ facial expressions on a ten-point “agony-to-ecstasy” scale.
The athletes who finished third appeared significantly happier than those who finished second. The average rating of the facial expressions of bronze medallists was 7.1. But silver medallists—people who’d just placed second in the most elite competition in the world—were neutral, even tilting slightly toward unhappy. Their rating: 4.8.
The reason, researchers concluded, was counterfactual thinking.
Counterfactuals can point in either of two directions—down or up. With “downward counterfactuals”, we contemplate how an alternative could have been worse. They prompt us to say “At least . . .”—as in, “Sure, I got a C+ on that exam, but at least I passed the course and don’t have to take it again.” Let’s call these types of counterfactuals At Leasts.
The other variety are known as “upward counterfactuals”. With upward counterfactuals, we imagine how things could have gone better. They make us say “If only . . .”—as in, “If only I’d attended class more often and done all the reading, I’d have gotten a much better grade.” Let’s call these counterfactuals If Onlys.
When researchers reviewed competitors’ post-event television interviews, they found the bronze medallists to be happily humming At Leasts. “At least I didn’t finish fourth. At least I got a medal!”. Silver medallists, though, were wracked with If Onlys. And that hurt.
The study has been replicated several times. For example, a researcher at San Francisco State University assembled about 21,000 photographs from the men’s and women’s judo competitions at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens - a massive photo set that represented 84 athletes from 35 countries. Regardless of the national origin or ethnicity of the athletes, the difference in facial expression among the medallists was striking. During the podium ceremonies, the gold medallists were almost all smiling widely. So, too, were most of the bronze medallists. The silver medallists? Not so much. They smiled only one-fourth as much as their counterparts.
At Leasts make us feel better. “At least I ended up with a medal—unlike that rider who blew it in the final seconds of the race and never reached the podium.” “I didn’t get that promotion, but at least I wasn’t fired.” At Leasts deliver comfort and consolation.
If Onlys, by contrast, make us feel worse. “If only I’d begun that final chase two seconds earlier, I’d have won a gold medal.” “If only I’d taken a few more stretch assignments, I’d have gotten that promotion.” If Onlys deliver discomfort and distress.
It would seem, therefore, that we humans would favour the first category—that we’d choose the warmth of At Least over the chill of If Only. But the truth is different. When researchers have tracked people’s thoughts by asking them to keep daily diaries or by pinging them randomly to ask what’s on their mind, they’ve discovered that If Onlys outnumber At Leasts in people’s lives—often by a wide margin. One study found that 80 percent of the counterfactuals people generate are If Onlys. Other research puts the figure even higher. That’s how our brains and minds work.
Two decades of research on counterfactual thinking exposes an oddity: thoughts about the past that make us feel better are relatively rare, while thoughts that make us feel worse are exceedingly common. We are organisms programmed for survival. At Least counterfactuals preserve our feelings in the moment, but they rarely enhance our decisions or performance in the future. If Only counterfactuals degrade our feelings now, but—and this is key—they can improve our lives later.
Regret is the quintessential upward counterfactual—the ultimate If Only. The source of its power, scientists are discovering, is that it muddles the conventional pain-pleasure calculus. Its very purpose is to make us feel worse—because by making us feel worse today, regret helps us do better tomorrow.
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From an article by Behavioral Scientist, 06/04/2022