What Can We Learn from the Solace of ‘At Least’ and the Sting of ‘If Only’?

Of the 306 events at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the women’s individual cycling road race was among the most grueling. The course stretched some 140 kilometers (nearly 87 miles) across city streets and through a national park. It required riders to make several steep climbs, survive one treacherous descent, and negotiate a long patch of cobblestone road. But when the yellow flag dropped at 12:15 p.m. on the first Sunday of August, 68 elite cyclists set off alongside Copacabana Beach for a shot at Olympic glory.

The race lived up to its brutal promise. The temperature hovered in the seventies (the low twenties Celsius) with a punishing 75 percent humidity. The sun frequently broke through the clouds and roasted the pavement. When the sunshine retreated, a light rain misted the course. One rider suffered a savage crash. Others exhausted themselves early. And nearly four hours after the start, with just three kilometers remaining in the race, American Mara Abbott held the lead, followed by a clutch of three riders about twenty-five seconds behind her.

“She’s got gold in her hands,” said announcer Rochelle Gilmore, who was calling the race for Olympic television. 

But Abbott, known more for climbing than for sprinting, couldn’t hold on. With just 150 meters left—that is, with 99.9 percent of the race complete—the other three riders pushed past her. Clustered together, they strained for the finish line. 

Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands edged out Emma Johansson of Sweden by the width of a tire. Italy’s Elisa Longo Borghini rolled up behind them. All three women had beaten expectations and earned Olympic medals. 

Imagine the look on their faces. 

No, really. Take a moment and picture their emotions. Visualize what they felt like after years of training and hours of struggle culminated in the ultimate athletic prize. 

Here, in part of a photo taken by Tim de Waele, is the smiling winner after receiving her gold medal: 

Photo credit: Tim de Waele, Getty Images

Here is the almost equally elated silver medalist: 

Photo credit: Tim de Waele, Getty Images

And here is the pleased—but not totally thrilled—third-place finisher after receiving her bronze: 

Photo credit: Tim de Waele, Getty Images

Even world-class athletes are emotional creatures. And at this epochal moment in their careers, their emotions are unmistakable. The finishers ascend in positivity—happy, happier, happiest. 

Faces don’t lie. 

But authors sometimes do. And I’ve been lying to you. 

Here is de Waele’s entire photograph of the 2016 Olympic women’s road race podium: 

Photo credit: Tim de Waele, Getty Images

The beaming athlete in the middle is indeed the gold medalist, Anna van der Breggen. But the very happy woman to her left (and your right) is Elisa Longo Borghini, the Italian rider who finished third. The least gleeful of the trio is silver medalist Emma Johansson. 

In other words, the person with the worst of the three outcomes (Borghini) looks happier than one of the people who beat her (Johansson). And this is not some aberrant photo, even though there are images of Johansson smiling that day. Consider the athletes’ reactions immediately after they crossed the finish line. Gold medalist van der Breggen raised both arms in triumph. Bronze medalist Borghini began high-fiving an invisible partner. Silver medalist Johansson buried her head in her hands. Nor is the emotional contrast the result of failed expectations. Borghini came into the race ranked higher than Johansson and expected to do better.

What you see on these Olympian faces is instead a phenomenon that behavioral scientists identified more than 25 years ago that opens another window into understanding regret. 

The human ability to mentally travel through time and conjure incidents and outcomes that never happened enables what logicians call “counterfactual thinking.” Split the adjective in two and its meaning is evident. We can concoct events that run counter to the actual facts.  

Two decades of research on counterfactual thinking exposes an oddity: thoughts about the past that make us feel better are relatively rare, while thoughts that make us feel worse are exceedingly common.

“Counterfactuals are . . . a signature example of the imagination and creativity that stand at the intersection of thinking and feeling,” say Neal Roese of Northwestern University and Kai Epstude of the University of Groningen, two leading scholars of the subject. Counterfactuals permit us to imagine what might have been. 

One of the clearest demonstrations of their impact comes from the Olympics. In a now famous study of the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Victoria Medvec and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University and Scott Madey of the University of Toledo collected videos of about three dozen silver and bronze medalists. They presented the videos to a group of participants who didn’t know much about sports and hadn’t paid attention to the games. Participants observed the athletes, but not during competitions. They watched them—with the final results hidden—in the immediate aftermath of their events and on the medal podium. Then they rated the competitors’ facial expressions on a ten-point “agony-to-ecstasy” scale that I’ve reproduced below: 

The athletes who finished third appeared significantly happier than those who finished second. The average rating of the facial expressions of bronze medalists was 7.1. But silver medalists—people who’d just placed second in the most elite competition in the world—were neutral, even tilting slightly toward unhappy. Their rating: 4.8. 

The reason, researchers concluded, was counterfactual thinking. 

Counterfactuals can point in either of two directions—down or up. With “downward counterfactuals,” we contemplate how an alternative could have been worse. They prompt us to say “At least . . .”—as in, “Sure, I got a C+ on that exam, but at least I passed the course and don’t have to take it again.” Let’s call these types of counterfactuals At Leasts

The other variety are known as “upward counterfactuals.” With upward counterfactuals, we imagine how things could have gone better. They make us say “If only . . .”—as in, “If only I’d attended class more often and done all the reading, I’d have gotten a much better grade.” Let’s call these counterfactuals If Onlys

When researchers reviewed competitors’ post-event television interviews, they found the bronze medalists happily humming At Leasts. “At least I didn’t finish fourth. At least I got a medal!” Silver medalists, though, were wracked with If Onlys. And that hurt. “Second place is only one step away from the cherished gold medal and all of its attendant social and financial rewards,” Medvec and her colleagues wrote. “Thus, whatever joy the silver medalist may feel is often tempered by tortuous thoughts of what might have been had she only lengthened her stride, adjusted her breathing, pointed her toes, and so on.” 

At Least counterfactuals preserve our feelings in the moment, but they rarely enhance our decisions or performance in the future.

The idea that people who finish higher feel worse is provocative—the sort of alluring discovery that captures headlines and enraptures social media. Importantly, the Medvec-Gilovich-Madey study has been replicated. Even its replications have been replicated. For example, David Matsumoto of San Francisco State University assembled about 21,000 photographs from the men’s and women’s judo competitions at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, a massive photo set that represented 84 athletes from 35 countries. Regardless of the national origin or ethnicity of the athletes, the difference in facial expression among the medalists was striking. During the podium ceremonies, the gold medalists were almost all smiling widely (what’s called a “Duchenne smile”). So, too, were most of the bronze medalists. The silver medalists? Not so much. They smiled only one-fourth as much as their counterparts. 

In 2020, William Hedgcock of the University of Minnesota and Andrea Luangrath and Raelyn Webster of the University of Iowa went further. They collected photos of 413 athletes from 142 sports and 67 countries over five separate Olympic Games. But instead of asking other people to evaluate the athletes’ facial expressions, as in previous studies, they used Emotient, computer software that encodes facial expressions automatically. (The program allowed researchers to scrutinize more expressions more quickly, free of any potential bias from human examiners.) Once again, the results held. Gold medalists smiled the most. But bronze medalists smiled much more than silver medalists. “[T]hose who were objectively better off nonetheless felt worse,” the paper’s authors noted.

I’ve watched that 2016 Rio road race several times. In the minutes after it ended, it’s easy to see the solace of At Least and the sting of If Only. Borghini, the bronze medalist, looked jubilant. She hopped off her bike, loped toward a group of friends and family, and embraced each one. “Elisa Borghini is absolutely delighted with a medal at the Olympic Games!” the announcers cried. 

Johansson, meanwhile, huddled quietly with her husband, her affect flat, as the announcers offered their own upward counterfactual. “Another fifty or one hundred meters, and she might have got out over the top,” they speculated. It was a moment of “mixed emotions” for her, they explained. “A silver medalist once again.” Indeed, Johansson had won the silver in the same event during the 2008 Olympics. (She didn’t compete in the 2012 games because of an injury.) She’d finished second in several other races, too, earning her a nickname in the cycling world that she never embraced—Silver Emma. “She’s ‘Silver Emma,’” Johansson’s mother told Swedish television after the finish. “I think she’s happy, but she wanted gold.” 

If only. 

At Leasts make us feel better. “At least I ended up with a medal—unlike that American rider who blew it in the final seconds of the race and never reached the podium.” “I didn’t get that promotion, but at least I wasn’t fired.” At Leasts deliver comfort and consolation.

If Only counterfactuals degrade our feelings now, but—and this is key—they can improve our lives later. 

If Onlys, by contrast, make us feel worse. “If only I’d begun that final chase two seconds earlier, I’d have won a gold medal.” “If only I’d taken a few more stretch assignments, I’d have gotten that promotion.” If Onlys deliver discomfort and distress. 

It would seem, therefore, that we humans would favor the first category—that we’d choose the warmth of At Least over the chill of If Only. After all, we’re built to seek pleasure and to avoid pain—to prefer chocolate cupcakes to caterpillar smoothies and sex with our partner to an audit with the tax man. 

But the truth is different. You’re much more likely to have a Silver Emma moment than a Bronze Borghini one. When researchers have tracked people’s thoughts by asking them to keep daily diaries or by pinging them randomly to ask what’s on their mind, they’ve discovered that If Onlys outnumber At Leasts in people’s lives—often by a wide margin. One study found that 80 percent of the counterfactuals people generate are If Onlys. Other research puts the figure even higher. The main exception are situations in which we’ve eluded calamity. For instance, one study of tourists who witnessed a deadly tsunami but managed to escape found that, several months later, they generated ten At Least comparisons for every If Only. These people didn’t feel aggrieved for being exposed to a natural disaster; they felt lucky for surviving it. In a sense, that’s also the experience of the bronze medalists, who avoided the far less devastating catastrophe of being denied an Olympic medal. But in our day-to-day experiences, those quotidian moments that form most of human existence, we’re much more likely to conjure If Onlys when we ponder what might have been. That’s how our brains and minds work. 

Two decades of research on counterfactual thinking exposes an oddity: thoughts about the past that make us feel better are relatively rare, while thoughts that make us feel worse are exceedingly common. Are we all self-sabotaging masochists? 

No—or at least not all of us. Instead, we are organisms programmed for survival. At Least counterfactuals preserve our feelings in the moment, but they rarely enhance our decisions or performance in the future. If Only counterfactuals degrade our feelings now, but—and this is key—they can improve our lives later. 

Regret is the quintessential upward counterfactual—the ultimate If Only. The source of its power, scientists are discovering, is that it muddles the conventional pain-pleasure calculus. Its very purpose is to make us feel worse—because by making us feel worse today, regret helps us do better tomorrow.

From The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward by Daniel H. Pink. Published by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Daniel H. Pink. 

Disclosure: Dan Pink a member of the Behavioral Scientist’s Advisory Board. Cameron French, an editor at Behavioral Scientist, served as an editorial consultant on The Power of Regret.