Counterfactual Thinking: An Endless Mind Game

The night before my first test in Biology13, I dreamt about chemical bonds. After I took my biology test last Thursday, I could not stop going over the questions in my mind. I asked all my friends to compare answers and I was so sure I had done well. Fantastic! “I aced my first college biology test”, I thought. On Saturday, I received the email from canvas and I opened it hurriedly. To my dismay, the grade read “76%”. I immediately started crying and I scrambled through the test packet, checking over my answers with the answer key. I asked myself “What if I had done this instead?” or ”if only I studied an extra day for the exam”. I was employing counterfactual thinking by torturing myself by replaying the event of the exam in my mind, imagining what the difference would have been if I had studied some other way or maybe checked over my answers a fourth time. I kept thinking “if only I had gotten one less wrong, I would’ve gotten an 80”. This counterfactual thinking took a toll on me and I talked to my friend about it. She told me that it’s just the first test and to quit worrying. Because counterfactual thinking is conscious, it takes up so much of our mental energy and we obsess over it. Although it is a conscious process, it is not voluntary. It takes mental energy to also stop engaging in this. I wish I had been aware of counterfactual thinking in the past because, in high school, I used to obsess over grades that were not on par with my standards. I used to obsess over a B+ and think “what if” or “if only”. Although counterfactual thinking was harmful if I constantly worried about a test for days, it did come in handy at times because I would come up with different ways to study if I had done badly on a test the first time.

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