In the wake of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, it seemed as though everyone instantly became a foreign policy strategist with a hot-take on what should have happened (nothing springs into action quite like the dogma of an armchair expert). Largely missing from the cacophony of opinions was an earnest exploration of counterfactuals, which would have considered how the consequences might be different had the US chosen a different path.
Counterfactual thinking is merely a thought-experiment, but its virtue as an intellectual pursuit lies not in its predictive accuracy, but rather in the way it brings us into relationship with the possibility of alternatives. The grip on our convictions begins to loosen when we observe the role-play of an alternative sequence of events and when we entertain its infinite consequences.
Decision-making research points out that widening the frame to explore more alternatives leads to better decisions, but perhaps the greatest prescription for counterfactuals is not in the science of decision-making, but rather in treating our tendency to be intellectually overconfident about what is right. Simply giving ourselves the space to remember the existence of counterfactuals is enough to soften our convictions and expand our curiosity.