August 24, 2018

Rebounding from Failure the Counterfactual Way

By Vega Subramaniam

When things go wrong, what questions swirl in your mind?

Perhaps these sound familiar:

  • “How did I let this happen again?”
  • “When will I ever learn?”
  • “Why do I keep doing this?
  • “How did I not know it would go wrong? Why did I not prepare better? What was I thinking? Why do I bother?”
  • “Why do I suck?”

Natural, perhaps? I don’t know. Does it vary by race and gender and other characteristics? Don’t know. Laudable by virtue of keeping us humble? I frankly don’t care unless someone can prove to me they’re effective for accountability (spoiler alert: they’re not).

What I do know is that changing the content of your questions will help you act differently in similar future circumstances.

I remember one of my teachers saying, “Mistakes are not good or bad. They’re just results you don’t expect.” 🙂

Take a moment to consider how a lab-coated scientist might consider a “mistake.” Envision them conducting an experiment. Imagine them pouring a substance into a vial and measuring what happens. Imagine their surprise when the substance turns orange instead of the green they’d predicted.

And then imagine them not so much hating themselves because it’s orange, not green, but rather widening their eyes in wonder and curiosity. Orange? How did that happen? Where did my calculations go wrong? And based on that, what would it take to create green next time rather than orange?

And then imagine us doing that with ourselves when we get “results we don’t expect.”

Interesting research on counterfactual thinking offers one concrete path toward making this change.

Counterfactual thinking is that “if only” thing we do to rewrite stories of past experiences to have a different ending. “If only I’d prepared more, I wouldn’t have tanked the interview.”

“Upward” counterfactual thinking gives us a happier ending (acing the interview). “Downward” counterfactual thinking comforts us by writing a worse ending (“at least that interview wasn’t with the E.D. of the organization!”).


What we know is that upward counterfactual thinking, in combination with behavioral intention and implementation intentiongives us better results in future similar circumstances.

Let me break that down: it’s one thing to think to yourself, “if only I’d prepared more!” Stopping there is not especially effective in changing behavior.

But, if it leads to behavioral intention—an intention to behave differently in the future, then it increases our odds of actually behaving differently. A behavioral intention might be, “I am going to prepare more before my next interview.”

And if we then make an implementation intention, we’re golden. An implementation intention might look like, “I’m going to block off an hour the day before my interview to draft answers to possible interview questions.”

It seems easy (doesn’t it always, friends, doesn’t it always), and that has a lot to do with timing and practice. During the throes of a massive disappointment might not be the best time to start practicing implementation intention.

Instead, start retraining your brain from reproachful self-talk to inquisitive self-reflection in the course of everyday experiences with lower stakes. When you burnt your dinner, say, because you got caught up in a show, or missed a self-imposed deadline because you…got caught up in a show.

That way, when you’re in a high-stakes situation, you’ll more naturally focus attention on what you can learn and do differently next time.

So, to sum up:

  • Something happens that you wish hadn’t happened
  • You think that if you’d done something differently, things would have turned out better (counterfactual thinking)
  • You resolve to do something differently next time (behavioral intention)
  • You make a plan for how you’re going to do that different thing (implementation intention)

And there you have it: the only road you’ll ever need to go from “if only” to “next time, I will.”



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