The ability to imagine alternatives to events that have already occurred distinguishes humans from other creatures and machines—artificial intelligence has not yet succeeded in creating a device that can devise counterfactual scenarios. The fact that we can travel in an imaginary time and rewrite our actions and their outcomes can prove to be an advantage or can lead to dysfunctional emotional and cognitive consequences.

As I turned on the burner and my brother ran off to check the henhouse, I felt an unparalleled talent for cooking blossom within me. I don’t know if I’d ever tried to follow a recipe before, but we were home alone and it seemed the perfect time for pancakes. Eager for something sweet and unwilling to challenge my skills and authority as an older sister, my brother greeted the news with an enthusiasm that inspired me to try my hand at a little-known field. He didn’t suspect I had any reservations about the recipe, and I didn’t tell him either, compensating for my uncertainty with a generosity that instantly convinced him to be my helper: I wasn’t going to keep track of the pancakes he was about to eat, especially since I was going to make enough of them to leave even our parents with amazing evidence of my culinary prowess.

As I diligently stirred in the batter that promised to send seismic waves of delight through all the taste buds of our cooking team, I mentally recapitulated the ingredients I knew my mother used. Nothing seemed to be missing, only the texture was a little strange, so I added a little more egg here, a little more flour there, fighting the dough in a grip akin to kneading sweetbreads. For reasons I can’t explain, I was stingy with the milk (the one ingredient the kitchen never lacked) and used up a lot of the flour, which, ironically, was hard to come by at a time of bumper wheat harvests. Finally, when the dough seemed to have reached perfection, I carefully transferred it to the pan. Much to the disappointment of both of us—but especially my younger brother, who was enchanted by the promise of countless pancakes—only one came out. A slightly hardened one, which to the critical eye resembled an omelette drenched in flour, but sweet and filling, which we shared fraternally and of which no incriminating evidence remained.

Although the two subjects have no obvious connection, I was reminded of my first pancake endeavours when I started reading about counterfactual thinking, a process that has come to the attention of social psychologists relatively recently. The ability to think about what should have happened on a given occasion is familiar to most people, but some of us spend too much time and energy developing counterfactual versions of events that have already happened. Some of these, viewed with the wisdom of later years, may have no more value or impact than a failed pancake. In fact, while it is easy, and in any case possible, to predict how things would have turned out if you had used or omitted one ingredient or another in a failed recipe, in life it is much harder to estimate what might have been. And we often tend to exaggerate the good things that would have happened if we had chosen one way or another.

Counterfactual thinking, between a blessing and a curse

Mental simulations such as “What if…”, “If it had not been for…” or “If only…” are usually the result of comparing reality with possible (better, but also worse) alternatives to it, giving rise to emotions such as regret, guilt or gratitude. Most of the time, however, we construct counterfactual thoughts when the results of some actions are less favourable than our expectations.

Choices that we didn’t make tend to be very attractive because we overestimate the good things that would have happened to us if we had chosen a different path, thus experiencing intense regret, according to a recent study by researchers at Dartmouth College.

We intuitively think that athletes’ happiness is directly proportional to their place on the podium, but in reality, bronze medallists are generally happier than silver medallists.

Counterfactual thinking can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse, writes psychology professor Frank McAndrew, reviewing a classic study of the feelings of Olympic athletes who make it to the podium. On an intuitive level, athletes’ joy is directly proportional to their place on the podium, but in reality, bronze medallists are happier than silver medallists, the researchers found. Emotions depend on the athletes’ expectations, but also on their interpretation of their performance: while silver medallists think they came very close to gold but failed, bronze medallists think they were one step away from missing the podium, so their emotions are on a completely different spectrum.

There’s nothing wrong with mental time travel, unless you become obsessed and tormented by counterfactual thoughts, says researcher Jared Branch, author of studies on the effects and causes of counterfactual thinking. Developing counterfactual versions of real events is associated with a tendency to be worried and anxious, and with low levels of agreeableness (be it sadness, cynicism or pessimism).

These associations hold for both “involuntary” counterfactual thinking (the subject is tormented by the memory of past events) and “voluntary” counterfactual thinking (the subject deliberately indulges in thoughts about the past). Branch found no link between this type of thinking and time perspective, concluding that counterfactual thinking is “a distinct category of mental time travel”. In other words, says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, there’s nothing wrong with thinking about the past, but there are dangers in trying to rewrite it.

Frequent immersion in “alternate versions of the past” can have negative effects such as anxiety, depression, and rumination.

Sylvia R. Karasu, professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, who has conducted a number of studies on counterfactual thinking, suggests that frequent immersion in “alternate versions of the past” can have negative effects such as anxiety, depression, and rumination. When counterfactual thoughts are about trauma and are vivid and frequent, they are also associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Karasu points out that researchers are now focusing more on the positive consequences of counterfactual thinking. Among the main positive effects studied are that people sometimes feel better after imagining certain scenarios, are better prepared for future decisions (because they avoid past mistakes), or feel more in control of certain situations. Counterfactual thinking “seems to help us get a sense of what’s going on, give meaning to our lives, and get a better perspective on things,” says psychologist Neil Roese.

What should we do with regret?

It can be difficult to resist the call of the past and look for alternative paths. What if I had applied to another university? What if I had (not) left the country? What if I had stayed at home on the day of the accident?

Whether we struggle with small regrets brought on by a tendency to perfectionism, or are plagued by thoughts that run endlessly against a backdrop of nagging “what ifs,” regret can be a tool we can use to live our lives better, says psychologist Jennifer Taitz. One of the steps Taitz recommends to better manage these thoughts is to evaluate how we deal with regret. Do we avoid thinking about what happened in order to suppress the pain? Or do we instead, like a modern-day Penelope, weave and unweave the same web of a past that can no longer be changed? We can better deal with the failures we have suffered and the mistakes we have made if we understand the patterns of our reactions in such situations.

Dwelling on regret undermines performance, even in simple tasks.

A study published in 2014 by Chinese researchers found that dwelling on regret undermines performance, even when it comes to performing simple tasks, but also that there are benefits (including clearer thinking) when people find a silver lining in the events that caused the regret.

Having identified how we deal with unpleasant situations, we need to learn how to stop ourselves falling into the regret spiral, says Taitz, who advises her readers to consider, preferably in writing, what happens when they fall into such a spiral: Do they feel better or worse as they replay the same episode in their minds? Have they learnt any real lessons from their mistakes, or are they just stuck in the same negative emotions? What are the moments when the temptation to revisit their regrets is overwhelming? The role of such a list is to make us aware that the spiral of regret not only serves to block us and consume precious energy and resources, but also to spur us on to find concrete ways to break the spiral.

The third step is to realise that we can look at things from a different perspective and see that there is a positive side to every experience. The Chinese researchers’ study showed that subjects performed better on the same set of tasks when they were able to see the positive side of things. Last but not least, we need to forgive ourselves for our mistakes and failures. When all solutions seem to fail, we should try to talk to ourselves as we would to a friend, says Taitz.

It’s true that certain failures or undesirable events leave us with deep scars, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, explains the psychologist. There is a Japanese practice called kintsugi, also known as “the art of precious scars”, which involves using a precious metal to glue together fragments of a broken ceramic object. The cracks are still visible, accentuated by the liquid gold or silver used, and each repaired object is unique, as is the pattern in which it was broken, but all these imperfections are transformed into beauty.

Each of us has our own story, with experiences, wounds, scars, and regrets that will never perfectly overlap with someone else’s, but we can celebrate them and make the most of them, rather than trying to hide them or mourn them endlessly. It is this unique story that makes us irreplaceable, because we are the only ones who can say what the world looks like to us. We also have a unique perspective on what the Potter looks like, the One for whom there is no definitively compromised vessel from the place where the battles we have had to fight have taken us.

Carmen Lăiu is an editor at the Signs of Times Romania and ST Network