Alternative Realities: Regret, Counterfactual Thinking, and the Creative Mind – Guest post by Ashley Pearson

I am delighted to be publishing CreativePhilo’s first guest post! Today’s article is by Ashley Pearson, a London-based director and playwright specializing in opera, new work and reimagined classics.

Don’t worry, this isn’t
an article about Trump. I promise.

We’ve all been hearing a
lot about regret lately – particularly, people regretting the choice they made
when they were asked a question about the future of their country.
But as artists, what can
we learn from, and how should we deal with, regret?
I’m an artist. I direct
(mostly opera), I write (mostly plays), and I make a lot of mistakes. One of
the best instincts to tell me if I need to change something is regret. It’s one
of the most important tools in my toolbox. I need my regrets to tell me when
I’ve done something that doesn’t align with my artistic vision. Or when I’ve
done something that’s just plain silly (ie. dear lord why did I think the light
should be purple?). I know I can’t let it control me, but I need it and I use
However, regret is also
a powerful force in opposition to creativity. According to a study by Dr. Neal
Roese, people tend to have more regrets when they have more opportunity. Choice
can be a burden. And what is creativity if not a boundless set of choices,
limited only by imagination.
n opera director, I make
decisions all the time. My job is about being decisive and having opinions
about everything from what someone should wear on stage, to how many rehearsals
we need, to what Handel meant when he wrote that melody. And I make a lot of
mistakes. But something I’ve learned through my practise (and there’s a reason
they call it a ‘practise’) is that the niggling feeling of regret that pangs in
my gut means I need to do one of two things: Either file it away as a mistake I
won’t make again; or change it. One of the best pieces of directing advice I’ve
ever received was from Stephen Unwin, who said, in the theatre “everything is
But how do we know what
to change? And how can we envision what we want to change it to?
Counterfactuals are
thoughts about what might have been. An integral indicator of regret, they
present us alternatives to the present moment, and we’re involved in
counterfactual thinking all the time— “I should have had that salad for lunch,”
or “I wish I hadn’t said that.” In my directing work, I am constantly
confronting counterfactuals; ‘I should have given that note like this,’ ‘That
lighting state would be much better if it wasn’t so blue,’ etc. With
counterfactuals, we imagine alternative realities that are somehow better than
the current one. But how can imagining these alternative realities help us?
We can categorize
counterfactuals in a few different ways. Additive counterfactuals focus on
doing something that wasn’t done, for example, ‘I wish I had learned Italian,’ whereas
subtractive counterfactuals focus on things we wish we hadn’t done, and is
about removing a choice, for example, ‘I shouldn’t have ordered those tacos.’
Also, we can categorize
counterfactuals as either upward or downward. An upward counterfactual tells
you how to make something better, while a downward counterfactual only tells
you how to make sure something doesn’t get worse.
“What else could I have done well?”
If I ate more salads, I would be
“What shouldn’t I have done, so I
could do well?”
If I hadn’t had that piece of cake,
I would be healthier.
 “What could I have done that would make this
even worse?”
If I had that piece of cake, I’d be
really unhealthy.*
“What didn’t I do that made this
If I didn’t have salad with my
cake, I’d be really unhealthy.
*The author in no way
wishes to imply you shouldn’t have that piece of cake.
The distinction may be
subtle, but studies have shown that additive counterfactuals enhance creative
thinking, while subtractive counterfactuals can enhance analytical problem
Additive counterfactuals
are marked by the absence of negation. So, to enhance creativity, it may be
wise to try and phrase counterfactuals in an additive way. For example, instead
of thinking “I shouldn’t have made the lighting so blue,” a better phrase may
be “I should have made the lighting more orange.” By using the latter, I’m
imagining a reality in which the lighting is more orange, instead of just
taking a negative view on the ‘blue’ reality. The additive counterfactual also
allows for more specificity. It presents a solution to the problem.
As you can imagine, too much
counterfactual thinking is indicative of stress and anxiety. Too much
counterfactual thinking early in a creative process might be
counter-productive. It is a reflective activity, and it may be best to put
aside self-evaluation until a later phase in the creative process. Try
following a first draft rule: The first time you write something, don’t
evaluate or judge the work. Then, when in later editing stages, bring in that
counterfactual eye. There may be some scientific evidence to back up this
The orbitofrontal
cortex, which is an important area for decision making and emotional processing
in the brain, is one of the main areas involved in our experience of regret.
However, studies have
shown that inhibiting the prefrontal cortex (the larger area the orbitofrontal
cortex is a part of) can enhance creativity. Suppressing this area can help to
disinhibit an individual’s emotional responses. In one study, scientists found “extensive
deactivation” of certain areas (including lateral orbital) of the prefrontal
cortex when jazz pianists were asked to improvise.
This suggests that
spontaneous creative thought is significantly aided by the suppression of areas
associated with regret and counterfactual thinking.
Next time you’re doing something creative (painting, writing,
acting), write down all the moments of regret you have. Then, when you’re done
the activity, try rephrasing all of them as upward, additive counterfactuals.
See if this helps your next creative phase.
Take another creative moment, and try ignoring and pushing out
any regrets or counterfactuals. Try not to control where your mind wanders.
(You’re suppressing your prefrontal cortex) How does this impact your early
creative phase? What about your next creative phase?
Regret and creativity
are inextricable linked through counterfactual thinking, and regret is an
essential part of the creative process. However, we need to be aware of when
regret becomes an inhibitor to creativity, especially in early stages of
creative thinking and idea generation. Regret is a reflective activity, but it’s
better to phrase regrets as additive, upward counterfactuals, to stimulate
creative problem solving.
Regret in creative
practise (and in life) can be a compass guiding us to change.
And finally, presenting
yourself with alternative facts may enhance your creativity. As long as you don’t
believe they actually happened (ok, maybe it’s a little bit about Trump).

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