From What Might Have Been to What Must Have Been: Counterfactual Thinking Creates Meaning

Laura J. Kray*, Linda G. George, Katie A. Liljenquist, Adam D. Galinsky, Philip E. Tetlock, Neal J. Roese

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

88 Scopus citations


Four experiments explored whether 2 uniquely human characteristics-counterfactual thinking (imagining alternatives to the past) and the fundamental drive to create meaning in life-are causally related. Rather than implying a random quality to life, the authors hypothesized and found that counterfactual thinking heightens the meaningfulness of key life experiences. Reflecting on alternative pathways to pivotal turning points even produced greater meaning than directly reflecting on the meaning of the event itself. Fate perceptions ("it was meant to be") and benefit-finding (recognition of positive consequences) were identified as independent causal links between counterfactual thinking and the construction of meaning. Through counterfactual reflection, the upsides to reality are identified, a belief in fate emerges, and ultimately more meaning is derived from important life events.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)106-118
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of personality and social psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2010


  • benefit-finding
  • counterfactual thinking
  • fate perceptions
  • meaning
  • narrative identity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science

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