Think Down

The Paradox of Choice is a great book that explains why the commonly held belief that "more choices=better" is wrong.

In one chapter, the author explains counterfactual thinking. Simply put, this is when we think about the world as it isn't, but might be or might have been. Essentially, it's when we think of an outcome of an event that is different from the way it actually happened.

There are two directions counterfactual thinking can occur. Upward thinking is an imagined state that is better than what actually happened. Downward thinking is an imagined state that is worse. As it turns out, upward thinking can be damaging to our emotional health and can be the cause of regret and despair. Downward thinking can be the cause of appreciation and contentedness.

Most people would probably tell you that it is better to will a silver medal in the Olympics than a bronze one. In reality, bronze medal winners are generally happier with their achievement than athletes who win silver. This is because the 3rd place winners tend to think of how close they were to 4th place and receiving nothing, whereas 2nd place finishers dwell on the tiny difference that cost them the gold.

I think that understanding the difference between upward and downward counterfactual thinking can help us be grateful for what we have and not feel regret for "the way things could have turned out."

1 comment:

Matt said...

I run into this dilemma, or something like it, every day as I meet with cancer patients and discuss with them why they need radiation therapy. Many of them have already had their tumors removed surgically and may actually be cured already, with no further treatment. I get to explain to them how statistically they have a better chance of being cancer-free if they get the treatment. But in reality it is somewhat artificial to think in terms of statistics, as in their case, either the tumor comes back or it doesn't, THEY are cured 100% or 0% of the time.

And then I see some patients come back later grateful that "we" cured them, and others unhappy about all the side effects we caused them by administering a treatment they may not really have needed.