Counterfactual Thinking, Thought Suppression & the Rebound Effect

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  • 0:06 Counterfactual Thinking
  • 1:59 Thought Suppression
  • 3:09 The Rebound Effect
  • 4:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell

Erin has an M.Ed in adult education and a BS in psychology and a BS in management systems.

In this lesson, we define counterfactual thinking and discuss the effects of this cognitive process. We also define and discuss thought suppression and its rebound effect, as well as look at a classic study on the subject.

Counterfactual Thinking

If you've ever watched the Olympic Games, have you ever noticed the reactions of the medalists after their scores have been announced? A number of studies have found that athletes who won a bronze medal actually appear to be happier than the athletes who won a silver medal. Why? Most likely, it's because the silver medalists were preoccupied by counterfactual thinking, which is imagining alternative outcomes of past events. Think how you would feel if you found out that you won second place but that the gold medalist just barely beat you. You would probably think about crucial moments during the event. If only you had pushed just a little harder, then you would have won the gold.

Counterfactual thinking is literally thinking counter to the facts. It's that 'if only' or 'what if' reasoning that we engage in, sometimes rather frequently. It has a big impact on our emotional response to an experience. It's not always thinking of ways things could have gone better, either. We also imagine how things could have been worse. For example, after a car accident, you might imagine what would have happened if you didn't have your seatbelt on. Could you have been killed? This train of thought will definitely impact how you feel about the accident.

For the most part, we control our thoughts during counterfactual thinking, so it is an example of high-effort thinking. At the same time, though, counterfactual thinking is not always intentional; sometimes it just happens after we experience something. It can be a relatively harmless process, but it can also make a bad experience, such as a traumatic event, even worse by reliving it over and over again.

Thought Suppression

Obsessing about the past can be mentally draining, so instead of imagining what could have been, sometimes we may just try not to think about it at all. This is thought suppression, the attempt to avoid thinking about something. If you've ever been on a diet, you can probably recall the very difficult task of not thinking about food, or at least, the food you're not supposed to eat on a diet. Thought suppression is pretty common. We try not to think about negative experiences so we can reduce, or at least control, our anxiety.

Trying not to think about food when on a diet is an example of thought suppression.
Thought Suppression

The bad news is that thought suppression doesn't work, especially when we are under cognitive load, such as when we are tired or preoccupied. If anything, thought suppression actually increases our anxiety by making the negative thought hyper-accessible. When trying not to think about something, the fact that you are purposely not thinking about that something stays on your mind. Every once in a while, you check to make sure you're not thinking about the something, which makes you think about it anyway.

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