Navigating the “I Should Have Known” Moments



– Carolyn Moriarty, LCPC


We all have situations that we revisit from time to time and see things we could have done differently. We puzzle over the same scenario like a Rubik’s cube, asking questions like: “How could this have happened?” or “what was I thinking when I decided to do/not do this thing?” or “what would things be like now if I had acted differently?”

Even if you perceive yourself as someone who can easily let things go and move on, nobody is immune to overthinking. Have you ever wondered why “letting go” of these emotions is so difficult? Although the answer is complex, for the scope of this blog post, we will delve into the notions of hindsight bias and counterfactual thinking.


Hindsight Bias and Counterfactual Thinking


What is Hindsight Bias?

Hindsight bias is when people trick themselves into thinking that they could have predicted an outcome after it has happened. When looking back at events with the knowledge of what happened, people tend to notice information that supports what they know now and ignore evidence that doesn’t fit. So, when they try to tell a story about what happened, it often sounds like, “This is where it all started, these were the signs, here’s where things went wrong, and this is what happened in the end.”

  • Imagine a well-known company endures a major financial crisis, and its stock value plummets as a result. After the crisis unfolds, people might say, “It was so obvious that the company was in trouble; the warning signs were everywhere.” However, before the crisis occurred, many of those warning signs might not have seemed as clear or significant.


What is Counterfactual Thinking?

Counterfactual thinking refers to the mental process of imagining alternative outcomes or scenarios that might have occurred in the past but did not actually happen. It involves considering “what if” or “if only” situations and exploring how different choices or events could have led to different results.

There are two main types of counterfactual thinking:

  • Upward counterfactuals: This form of thinking involves imagining a better outcome if different actions had been taken in the past. For example, someone might think, “if only we had paid closer attention to those early warning signs, we could have taken preventive measures and avoided the severe downturn in the stock value.”
  • Downward counterfactuals: These involve imagining a worse or more negative outcome than what actually occurred. For instance, individuals might engage in thoughts like, “It could have been much worse; we were fortunate that the stock value didn’t decline even further.”


Counterfactual Thinking Traps


Counterfactual thinking may sometimes be constructive for learning and improvement and can lead to positive emotions like relief and gratitude. However, in many cases, combining hindsight bias (thinking things were obvious after they happened) with counterfactual thinking (imagining different outcomes) can also lead to rumination, regret, or dissatisfaction.

Here are examples of the negative consequences:

  • Counterfactual thinking often involves imagining better or worse outcomes. This can make people feel regret, guilt and shame—especially if they blame themselves for not making different choices.
  • Hindsight bias and counterfactual thinking can distort the learning process. If individuals believe that outcomes were entirely predictable, they may not accurately understand the true complexity and uncertainty of a situation. This can impair their ability to learn from past experiences and make better decisions in the future.
  • Hindsight bias and counterfactual thinking may lead individuals to underestimate the role of randomness or external factors in certain events. This can make them wrongly think everything is because of their actions rather than acknowledging the influence of unpredictable elements.
  • The fear of making mistakes based on these biases can make people avoid making decisions. They might become too scared to take risks, which can stop progress.
  • Blaming oneself or others for mistakes based on counterfactual thinking can harm relationships or teamwork by creating a negative and unhelpful environment.


Ideas for Letting Go


When individuals engage in counterfactual thinking, imagining alternative scenarios and different outcomes, they may experience heightened regret and self-blame. To address these issues, it’s important for individuals to be aware of these cognitive biases and work towards fostering a more balanced perspective of events to make informed decisions in the future.

Building resilience, practicing self-compassion, and learning from experiences without excessive self-blame are essential components of moving forward in a positive direction. By acknowledging these biases and incorporating therapeutic strategies, individuals can work towards mitigating the negative impacts of guilt and hindsight bias on their well-being.

Here are some strategies that may be helpful:

  • Fostering awareness: recognize when counterfactual thinking and hindsight bias is influencing your perceptions. Being aware of this cognitive bias is the first step toward mitigating its impact.
  • Mindfulness: Practice mindfulness techniques to stay present and focused on the current moment. Mindfulness can help prevent excessive rumination about the past.
  • Balanced Reflection: Strive for a more balanced reflection on past events. Acknowledge the uncertainty and the various factors that were in play, rather than simplifying the situation.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be a valuable approach. CBT helps individuals identify and challenge distorted thought patterns, fostering a more realistic understanding of past events. You can refer to this cognitive distortion worksheet for help in determining what type of irrational thoughts you might be unintentionally engaging in (most irrational thoughts are, to some extent, generated by cognitive distortions).
    • A commonly employed tool in CBT is the thought record journal, also known as a thought log. This structured tool serves as a way to reflect upon a situation that caused you irrational thoughts, unpleasant emotions and subsequent behaviors. First, reflect upon the relationship between these three things. Then, identify an alternative, more rational perspective to see the situation from a more objective perspective. You can refer to this example of a completed thought log.

Developing resilience and learning from experiences without excessive self-blame are essential components of moving forward positively. Recognizing these biases and applying therapeutic strategies can enable you to actively reduce the adverse effects of rumination and guilt on your well-being.




Seeking Mental Health Support


Seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor can provide personalized guidance and support in addressing guilt, managing cognitive biases, and fostering emotional well-being. Consider scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling CenterOur therapists can develop an appropriate treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. Meet our team to learn more!

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