Meaning and counterfactuals: “If only…”
Oh, the number of times we’ve heard “if only…” from mock jurors. “If only she’d taken her regular route to work.” “If only he’d gotten a second opinion.” “If only they had sat down and talked to each other before things got so out of control.”
It’s such a plaintive refrain and therein lies the appeal. They are effectively saying “this is such a sad story that it threatens my own sense of safety so much I need to create an alternative scenario that would have made it end much better“.
And now we have research focusing on just how we use counterfactual thinking to create meaning. It isn’t about how we are stubborn and not listening to the evidence. It’s about how we try to make sense of our world and protect ourselves from the knowledge that bad things happen–even to good people.
This research is so resonant with what we hear from our mock jurors that we hope you will take time to read it. [See a full pdf of this article here.]
These writers assert that our search for meaning in life is supported and enhanced by counterfactual thoughts as to “what might have been”. They see counterfactual thinking as increasing our beliefs in fate and destiny–as in, “it was meant to be”. In two different experiments, participants who were told to generate counterfactuals about their college choice or a close friendship (e.g., “what might have happened had you not chosen this college or not met your close friend?”) ended up feeling their college choice and a close friendship were more meaningful and more significant in their lives than those participants not instructed to generate counterfactual thoughts. Counterfactual thinking made these life events/experiences more meaningful.
A third experiment was conducted to specifically look at the relationship between counterfactual thoughts and a sense that the event was “fated” or “destined” to happen. The researchers point to an ironic truth that highlighting the improbability of an event bestows inevitability upon that event.
They offer the example of winning the lottery: “It could not have happened by chance alone. It must have been fated.” Perceiving fate as being at work enhances the meaning of resulting events.
So for the third experiment, participants were asked to identify a turning point in their lives wherein “rapid, intense and clear change occurred, such that you were never the same again”.
Once they had described their individual turning point in a free form written narrative, they were given instructions for their counterfactual thoughts:
“Describe how your life would be now if the turning point incident had never occurred. Please write about who you would be, where you might be, the relationships you might have, the beliefs, values and feelings that might characterize you, or any other details about this alternate world you can imagine.”
The other half of the participants were given factual instructions for assessing their individual turning points.
“Describe exactly what happened, when it happened, who was involved, what you were thinking and feeling, what happened right before and right after the incident occurred, or any other factual aspects of the incident that you can recall.”
As you might suspect, those participants in the “counterfactual condition” had higher perceptions that their “turning point” was fated than did those in the “factual condition”. The participants did not merely conclude that their lives could have easily unfolded very differently. Instead, the experience of thinking counterfactually about their experience enhanced their sense that fate was at work: “it was meant to be”.
And these researchers were still not done. They did one final experiment to see if finding benefit in your “turning point” (as in “here are the good results of this event”) would be related to seeing yourself as “better off” due to the turning point experience. They used the same experimental procedure as in the third experiment with minor modifications to allow coding the turning point as a negative or positive event. They also had some participants reflect directly on the meaning of the turning point in their lives.
Again, the counterfactual condition resulted in a stronger sense of the turning point being fated and gave the turning point more meaning in the lives of individual research participants. Counterfactual reflection also produced more positive assessments of the impact of the turning point than did either factual reflection or direct reflection on meaning of the turning point.
What the researchers ultimately opine is that counterfactual reflection results in the assignment of positive benefit to the individual experiencing the turning point–to a greater degree than even directly assessing the turning point’s meaning. That is, when you consider “what might have been”, you are more likely to imbue that turning point as mandated by fate and as having made positive impact in your life journey.
We hear this sort of thinking from our mock jurors consistently in cases where either financial or physical or emotional damage is alleged by the plaintiff. In additional to the “if only” refrains, we also hear things like “Struggles like this help you know who your friends are”, or “This would really give you a chance to figure out what is truly important” or “If this had not happened, she never would have discovered how strong she really is and her ability to cope”. We are wired this way. We struggle to find meaning and reason to what has occurred. Whether it is fate or the result of bad choices–your jurors are always going to interpret, make meaning, assign positive or negative benefits to the life-changing event, and assert reasons as to why this sort of thing would “never” happen to them.
This is a self-protective maneuver and your task as the plaintiff attorney is to gently but firmly shatter it.
This wasn’t fated, it was due to negligence.
It wasn’t random, it was totally preventable and happened due to poor safety practices or bad choices of the defendant.
This didn’t happen for a reason–God did not ordain it. This was a human-caused incident that would not have happened at all if the manufacturer had just included a modification that they not only knew about but that only cost $2.19 per unit.
And so on. We are so used to the “story approach” and sequencing our case narratives to minimize “if only” reactions that we forget sometimes just how powerful and ingrained is the desire to find meaning. It is always a reminder when mock jurors begin to discuss how it would have never happened to them and, sometimes, begin to blame the victim–that we need to go back and point to all the right choices made by the victim(s) and all the wrong choices made by the defendant(s).
Obviously if you are representing the defense, you want the counterfactuals going strong and loud. It was random. Stuff happens. This was a blessing in disguise. He is stronger for this and his family is much closer. Yes, it was a horrible thing. But good resulted. Let’s not forget that!
In a very real way, counter factual thinking is a form of internal fact-checking for all of us, albeit one that has the potential of jumping the tracks of reason and reality. To overlook its inevitable presence is to leave a potentially powerful stumbling block in the jury’s path.
Kray, LJ, George, LG, Liljenqujist, KA, Galinsky, AD, Tetlock, PE, & Roese NJ (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