Reducing impulsive behavior by thinking of the what-ifs



A recent study published in the journal of Personality and Individual Differences looked at why we tend to engage in impulsive behavior despite the obvious negative outcomes. Specifically, the authors aimed to unveil the difference between individuals who learn from their past mistakes and those who do not.

Impulsive behavior can be consequential in a variety of workplace contexts. For example, impulsive management can lead to destabilization in the workplace. When a manager fails to behave consistently, or to make rash decisions, they leave their employees guessing how they should act in specific situations. Furthermore, a lack of focus can become contagious under the leadership of an impulsive manager.

In the current study, the researchers were interested in exploring the association between the cognitive act of counterfactual thinking and impulsive behavior.

(note: counterfactual thinking is the tendency to think of alternative outcomes to past life events. For example, you might dwell on what could have happened if you had spent a little more time preparing this morning's presentation to your work peers, e.g., “what if I just …?”).

The researchers tested the hypothesis that individuals seem to learn better from past risky behavior when they engage in such thinking. More specifically, they sought to pinpoint a certain type of counterfactual thinking believed to be especially good at reducing impulsive behavior.

“What if I had’ve….”  The role of counterfactuals in impulsive behavior

Researchers describe impulsivity as the tendency to behave with little to no regard for potential consequence. Psychologists have dubbed the term delay-discounting to describe the human tendency to disregard the value of an outcome due to its delayed occurrence (think overzealous credit card purchases).



Past research has identified a clear relationship between delay-discounting and impulsive behavior. Those who are notoriously impulsive see the value in the here and now. They discount the value of what’s to come. The real puzzle is why this broken value calculation leading to impulsivity doesn’t fix itself despite repeated negative consequences. In other words, why do we keep doing the things that inevitably lead to disastrous outcomes? And why do some people learn from their past mistakes?

Recent research has turned to the role of counterfactuals in differentiating between those who learn from past risky behavior and those who do not. We often lean towards counterfactual thinking as an emotional and psychological Band-Aid when faced with a negative outcome; we engage in all sorts of “what if”s and “if only”s. Longstanding research has shown that these thought processes might help alleviate some mental agony and offer a functional role in behavioral change.

Counterfactuals, though, come in different flavors. They can be subtractive i.e. “If I hadn’t drank so much wine last night, I wouldn’t have such a bad hangover this morning.” In this case, we remove an element from the situation (the wine). They can also be additive  i.e. “If I had opted for juice instead of wine last night, I wouldn’t have such a bad hangover this morning.” This is where we actually add an alternative to our situation, and thus change its potential outcome (the juice).

Furthermore, counterfactuals can also elicit different types of outcomes. We can think of a better situation (not having a hangover) or a worse situation (having a hangover and getting a DUI). Researchers call these upward and downward counterfactuals, respectively, and the current research suggests that there may be one that works better at reducing implicit behavior. In the current study, the researchers aimed to unpack the nuances of the 4 types of counterfactuals (additive, subtractive, upward, and downward) in relation to their relative effects on impulsive behavior.

The study and findings

The study aimed to examine the relationship between counterfactual thinking and impulsivity. Participants first completed a delay-discounting task designed to measure their impulsive decision making in real-time. The task asked participants to choose between a larger sum of money after a delayed period and a smaller amount of money that would be available to them immediately.

The computerized task increased the immediate monetary reward by fifty-cents each trial and kept the larger sum constant at $10. The participant’s ‘impulsivity score’ was measured as the smallest dollar amount they chose to receive immediately. In addition to the behavioral task, participants also completed a self-report measure of their trait style impulsivity.

The researchers then had participants complete a scenario based thought-listing task designed to capture counterfactual thinking. The scenario described a car accident and was written so as to promote counterfactual thinking. The participants were given 5 minutes to list things they thought that had they been different, would have changed the outcome of the scenario. The participants’ responses were then judged by coders for their counterfactual content (the 4 types).

Counterfactuals were considered additive if they inserted a new element to the scenario and subtractive if they removed something from the scenario. Additionally, they were considered upward if they described a better alternative or downward if they offered a worse alternative.

The study found that those who generated fewer counterfactuals in the thought-listing task tended to be more impulsive in the money-choice task. Additionally, the more upward-additive counterfactuals a person generated, the less impulsive they tended to be in the money-choice task. An example of an upward and additive counterfactual sounds something like: “I would have scored better on my exam if only I’d gone to class”. In this case, you’re adding an element (going to class) to the situation that, in turn, results in a better outcome (a better grade).

Past research suggest that additive upward-additive counterfactuals help to enhance future performance because they’re often more specific and creative. By going beyond the premise of the original scenario, you begin to explore new options that might have been overlooked in the past. Further, the extra bit of effort required to conjure them up might actually motivate you to apply them in the future.

Results applied: Think upward and additive



Step 1: Write

The current research suggests there is a particular functional role of upward-additive counterfactual thinking when we are re-evaluating our past decisions. Figuring out what type of counterfactual you’re prone to can help you navigate future situations involving impulsive or hasty decision-making.

The following is a shortened version of the vignette the researchers used to evaluate counterfactual thinking. While you read through it, jot down 3 counterfactuals that come to mind. For example: “If they hadn’t gone out that night, they wouldn’t have had the accident.”

Eugene and Tina both use wheelchairs.  One night when they were heading out, they flagged a taxi that refused their fare because he thought it would be too crowded in the taxi with both of them and the wheelchairs.  So Eugene and Tina took Tina's car, which was equipped with special hand controls. In order to get downtown from their house, they had to travel across a bridge over a river. A severe storm the night before had weakened the structure of the bridge. About 5 minutes before Eugene and Tina reached it, a section of the bridge collapsed. (The taxi driver had reached the bridge about 10 minutes before them, and made it safely across.). In the dark, Eugene and Tina drove off the collapsed bridge and their car plummeted into the river below. They both drowned.

Step 2: Assess and code

Now that you have your counterfactuals in front of you, it's time to code them and determine what type they are.  

If a new element was inserted to the situation, it’s considered an additive counterfactual. If you removed an element, that means its subtractive. If the theorized outcome is better than the current outcome, that means it’s upward. If you provided a worse alternative, it’s a downward counterfactual.

If you find not all your counterfactual thoughts were both upward AND additive then it’s worth paying mind to the next time you’re faced with a situation in your own life that sparks counterfactual thinking.

Step 3: Apply

Moving forward, you want to try and correct future counterfactual thoughts that are aggressively downard and subtractive and inch towards more upward and additive responses.

To be less impulsive in a workplace context, try using the following questions the next time you find yourself faced with a situation that has you dwelling on the “what if”s.

  1. What additional things could you have done that might have produced a better outcome?

  2. How would the situation change for the better if you had done those things?

  3. What exactly would the outcome look like if it were ideal?