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2021 Week 3 Episode 1: Counterfactuals

Table of contents

  1. Listen
  2. Transcript
  3. Further Reading
  4. Subscribe



Hi and welcome to Parallel Worlds. I hope you enjoyed the writing exercises this week. This is one of the longer podcasts in which I’ll focus on a single topic, giving a rough overview of something – at least enough that you can get some ideas and generate some work.

This week’s topic is ‘counterfactuals’. I’ll be talking about the role that counterfactuals can play in the creation of worlds, as well as the role that they already play in your life. How are counterfactual scenarios used at the micro level, and how can they be used at the macro level?

First, a word from our sponsor. I’ll be back after this.

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Hello again.

In this course, we’re running all of our activities in parallel. On one hand, we’re looking at cold, hard, reality: the studio practice you already have, the work you already produce, and the life you already live. And on the other hand, we’re playing with fiction: the made-up, the fantastical, the magically real, make-believe.

This week you’ve done five sets of writing activities, all of which reflect this duality. The first activity each day has been to document the prosaic everyday, the space you’re in, the routine you have. I’m curious to hear what you made of these – what is your life like? What details did you think were important enough to write down? What made a good subject, and what did you discard? What parts did you take for granted, and which parts seem like they’d be interesting to someone else?

The other side is the fantastical. I asked you to do five other writing activities: ‘A warm memory’, ‘What could have been’, ‘a narrow escape’, ‘a near miss’, and ‘a change you would have made’. The first one was really a warm-up, a way to think about how to gather sensory information.

The other four all built towards this episode! They all relied on a narrative of something that didn’t happen but could have – something we term ‘counterfactual’.

I’m going to do the most clichéd thing I can here, and whip out some dictionary definitions.


Adjective: ‘Relating to or expressing what has not happened or is not the case’

Noun: ‘a counterfactual conditional statement (e.g. If kangaroos had no tails, they would topple over).’

Thanks, Oxford English Dictionary! Just to note, a lot of podcasts use the American Merriam-Webster dictionary, but being British myself, my default is Oxford.

So, relating to something which has not happened, or is not the case. It’s exactly what the word describes: counter - against, factual - in indisputable truth.

But what does this mean, and why is it important to us?

Well, let’s think about use-cases of counterfactuals.

First of all, we use counterfactuals all the time, in the way we think every day, evaluating potential consequences from the mundane to the profound.

There’s the upward counterfactual, where you think of something that could have been better:

If only I’d skipped breakfast, I’d have made the bus! If I’d checked the weather, I definitely would have brought an umbrella. If I’d just had three different numbers on my lottery ticket, I’d be a millionaire!

Then there’s the downward counterfactual, where you pose scenarios which could have been worse:

If I hadn’t checked the weather I’d be soaking right now! If I hadn’t braked in time, I’d have hit that car. If Tony hadn’t sold his stocks before the crash, he’d have lost his house.

Normally these are the sort of thing you’d say ‘Thank goodness!’ to. The counterfactual can range from something completely tiny – ’Dammit! If only I’d checked my pockets, I wouldn’t have washed my phone!’ to the absolutely huge – ’What if the Americas had never been colonised?’.

If you’ve seen the 1998 romantic comedy Sliding Doors, you’ll be familiar with this topic. In that film, Gwynneth Paltrow plays a character whose life changes when she either makes it onto an Underground train, and meets the love of her life, or doesn’t. The film plays out both scenarios, ending with the happiest, which poses the unhappy one – where she dies – as the ‘counterfactual’ scenario. Here I must admit I haven’t seen the film, but we can use it as a way to think about how counterfactuals work.

A counterfactual scenario needs a point where reality branches in one direction, and the counterfactual scenario branches in the other. In Sliding Doors, it’s the moment that gives the film its name, when Gwynneth Paltrow either misses, or makes it onto, her train. We can call this a bifurcation point, or a branch point.

It’s funny how the present seems somehow inevitable, as if it was predestined all along. I know in my life there are countelss tiny things which led to my being here, right now, and parts of my life which feel like they were somehow supposed to be.

Picture your life as a line, from the moment you’re born, until today. Each time you can make a decision, no matter how tiny, the line branches into two: one that you can see, the action you took, and one that you can’t see, the action that you didn’t take. If you had a perfect memory – and of course nobody does – you could follow that line back to your birth and trace all of those millions and millions of decisions. How would your life have been different if you’d chosen peanut butter instead of jam on the 23rd of March 2014? What if you’d cycled instead of taking the bus that day?

For every decision you did make, of course, there’s another path that could have unfurled, again, which generated its own tree with millions more branches further down the line. There are so many alternatives that could have existed within your life – let alone the world as a whole. You could be a completely different person by now – and the world could be completely different too! What could the furthest branch point from where you are right now look like? How could a minor or a major decision have played out differently? How different could the later versions of similar decisions look further down the line?

There is a version of this thought-experiment in quantum physics - the many worlds theory by Mark Everett - which proposes that the universe does actually exist in this manner: that every time there can be two possibilities, the universe actually multiplies and both possibilities become simultaneous realities. The two realities can’t interact with each other, but both do exist at the same time. I don’t normally go too far into quantum physics in these podcasts – not because I don’t want to, but because I don’t know enough myself – but given that the course is called Parallel Worlds, let’s spend a couple of minutes in this strange idea.

Schrodinger’s Cat is a famous thought experiment in quantum physics. Picture a cat, in a sealed box that you can’t see into. Alongside the cat is a vial of poison, a piece of radioactive material, and a geiger counter plugged into a hammer. If the geiger counter detects a single atom decaying, it shatters the vial of poison, and kills the cat. Since radioactivity is something that appears to operate at random – by which I mean, we couldn’t predict it accurately – there is no way for us to know if the cat is alive or dead at any one time.

In the Everett’s Multiple Worlds scenario, the cat is both alive and dead simultaneously, just in different universes.

Have I lost you? Perhaps. I hope not too much – let’s get back to something a bit more design-y.

Remember earlier where I said that there are certain things that feel just inevitable in your life? Perhaps you met your soul mate and you can’t imagine life without them, or you love the work you do, or whatever else – it seems like whatever happened, you would have ended up in that situation. Well that probably isn’t the case. In Everett’s many-worlds, there are billions of parallel versions of you, living all sorts of different lives. There are also billions and billions of different people who could have been you, but made of different sperm and eggs, your parents with different partners, and so on!

If you picture your life as a line again, think how differently the version of you who’s farthest away is. And now think about the world around you: the reality we live in today could have been very different. Today, it seems inevitable that phones are mostly iPhone-shaped, sort of candy bar things with a shiny touchscreen on the front. Ten years ago, that form we know today was one of many designs, things that popped open, had full keyboards, funny stick on bits, rubber padding, and so on. But somehow, even though we’ve all seen the potentialities of these things, it’s hard to imagine a world where everyone carries around a thing in their pocket that looks different to what we have today. What if the path had branched differently ten years ago? Or twenty, or thirty, or fifty years ago, when the technologies that made current phones possible were being developed? How would you plot a counterfactual reality that ended up with a different type of phone to the ones we use?

What about something like the internet? Again, today, it feels like: constant connectivity, WiFi, 4G, social media, cloud storage, are all somehow inevitable, that they would have happened no matter what. But that isn’t the case! The protocol for the World Wide Web, which is the thing that enabled the internet you know and love, was based on the designs of one scientist, Tim Berner-Lee, in 1989. He came up with the design whilst he was a software engineer at CERN – but what if after he’d graduated he’d met a lover who encouraged him to move to the depths of Brazil rather than Switzerland? Would someone else have designed the same thing? Probably not, or at least, not in exactly the same way.

If you were devising an interesting scenario here, where would you put the bifurcation point? In my example I chose a love interest because it’s lazy; we’re all familiar with the idea that love, or at least lust, can make you act in irrational ways, so I suppose you could create all manner of lazy counterfactual scenarios just by inserting a love interest into a historical figures’ life.

A side note for the historians, and science and technology studies people – I know that the internet that we know today is the result of countless peoples’ work, largely unseen, but I wanted to pick an example where you can directly see the impact of one person on a much larger system. You can find Berners-Lee’s drawings for the World Wide Web systems diagram online, and if you are very technologically and counterfactually inclined, you could imagine a different diagram producing a different internet.

And now a word from our sponsor.

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So far we’ve established that counterfactual scenarios can be used to imagine difference, mostly in our own lives. If I hadn’t met that person in that tenuous way, I wouldn’t be here right now. I want to talk a little bit about how they’re used in industry, then take it all back to what you’re here for – how can I use counterfactuals in my own practice? How can I create counterfactuals, what purpose could they serve me, and how can they help me to create worlds in my work?

I read an interesting paper last year called Reimagining History: Counterfactual risk analysis, by Gordon Woo et al. It was actually presented at a week-long workshop about counterfactuals, which had some incredible participants, which I attended last year. The paper was written for Lloyd’s Insurance Group, and is aimed at introducing counterfactual thinking to the insurance industry. I’ll quote Woo here:

Whenever an event occurs that takes the insurance market by surprise, questions are asked how the loss might have been averted or what additional risk mitigation measures might have reduced the loss. It is also useful for insurers and other interested parties to ask how the loss might have been worse. This is known as downward counterfactual analysis (upward counterfactual analysis considers what would have happened if things had been better).


Downward counterfactual analysis is rarely carried out and yet there is huge value in doing so. In statistical analysis, historical data is usually treated as fixed rather than one possible version of many that could have occurred if various influencing factors had been different.

Source: G. Woo, J. Seria, and T. Maybard. “Reimagining History: Counterfactual Risk Analysis.” Lloyd’s Emerging Risk Report. London: Lloyd’s London, 2017.

So the paper is arguing that counterfactual analysis is something the insurance industry should do in order to improve its mathematical modelling. If there is a near-miss at the moment – say, a huge oil tanker nearly gets capsized in a storm – the insurance company normally just sighs with relief that they won’t have to pay millions of dollars in compensation. But actually logging and modelling these things has great potential value.

This is something that already happens in the aviation industry!

2017 was widely hailed as the safest year in aviation history. Donald Trump even took credit for it, despite not really having anything to do with it at all. However, it very nearly wasn’t.

On 7 July 2017, an Air Canada plane coming in for landing in San Fransisco failed to see that there were four other fully loaded planes on the runway. Air traffic control managed to avert the aircraft landing when it was just 30 metres from the ground. If it had been five seconds later, it would have hit the third plane on that runway, possibly causing more than 500 deaths. Five seconds later, and it would have been the worst disaster in aviation history.

But it wasn’t, and Trump went and took the credit for a super-safe year, and everyone was happy.

There are lots of other examples of times like this when a near-miss could caused chaos, but didn’t. Bizarrely, we humans tend to focus on the upward counterfactuals – the ones where we could have been better – rather than the downward ones. Think about the people you meet who define themselves by what they nearly were, rather than what they nearly weren’t! As a kid, I met countless people who nearly played for Arsenal, or nearly made a million pounds on this, or could have been the best at something else. I hardly met anyone who introduced themselves as “Yeah, I’m a multi-millionaire, but I nearly walked in front of a bus in 1995” or “I have it all, but I nearly lost it too.”

We do the same in art and design. We’re often told that creativity is a strange and undefinable process, something that just happens. Our work, our thinking, is often so circumstantially tenuous that the likelihood of that particular work actually being made relies on a very specific set of events. Yet we take the strange happenstances as evidence that we’re good at what we do. I know with my projects that quite often the strange little thing that saved the work was the result of something coincidental, and very nearly didn’t happen. We’re used to watching TED-style talks where the process someone used is post-rationalised, and presented as inevitable, the same way that I described the iPhone, or even aspects of my own life feeling inevitable earlier.

I wonder, as a design exercise, if you could think about the work you are most proud of, the work that in some way defines your practice, and try to run through a downward counterfactual of its creation. I think it’s quite hard to do! What might it have looked like, how might your life have been different if it hadn’t worked out the way it did?

-- pause --

I actually find that thought quite a scary one to take on. I feel passionately about the work I do, and it’s hard to decouple the work from myself. But the exercise is kind of useful, in thinking about what the components and workflows are to my creative process. Thinking how the best bits happened before, and the consequences that could have occurred if they hadn’t been there, could help you to shape the circumstances for future success.

OK, this episode is longer than I had wanted it to be. I still feel there’s lots more I could talk about, but I do want to respect your time. I’m actually manically recording this in the time my baby is sleeping, so I can’t fit too much more in.

So far we’ve focused on lots of real-world counterfactuals, if you can call a counterfactual real-world. Let’s finish with a couple of counterfactual techniques for creating fictional worlds.

There are lots of examples of counterfactual worlds in fiction. The popular TV series The Man in the High Castle, based on a book by Philip K Dick, is based in a counterfactual world in which the axis, rather than the allies, won the Second World War, and the Japanese and German forces have divided up the United States. It paints a picture of a 1950s America in which the iconography of Americana is permeated with Nazi ideology and aesthetics, and San Francisco is distinctly Japanese.

The 2007 mockumentary CSA: Confederate States of America poses a counterfactual scenario where the south won the American Civil War, and avoids the 1929 stock market crash through the continuation of the slave trade.

But that idea isn’t new! In the early 1930s, Winston Churchill wrote a counterfactual account of what it might have looked like if General Lee had won the Battle of Gettysburg in a book with the charming retro way to pose counterfactuals, ‘If It Had Happened Otherwise’.

There are so many examples of this type of genre that I could list. If you’re curious, just jump down the wikipedia rabbit-hole of counterfactuals, counterfactual histories, counterfactual fiction, and so on. Just make sure you’ve got plenty of time to spare!

The last thing I want to talk about is setting up counterfactual scenarios yourself, perhaps as a way of creating work, or creating an alternate backstory or context for your work, or just as a fun thought experiment.

It’s quite simple, but can take you in unexpected directions, and generate new ways of thinking of possibilities. You need to identify a bifurcation point – something that can branch somewhere.

The simplest way to do this is to pick a place and event – for example, what if John F Kennedy had not been shot – and carry on the scenario. You’d have to carry out historical research, of course, line up different pathways, and so on. But there’s a part of me that resists this method, because it places a huge emphasis on individuals, rather than societies and trends. Usually the results you get tend towards the political, and as a designer I find this a limiting way to think about design.

I came across a more interesting way at the workshop I attended in Leiden last year. Josefin Wangel, the project leader for SLU Futures Lab, ran an activity in which she asked groups to think about sanitation. She posed a simple-sounding question, which yielded a wide range of proposals: ‘What if the flushing toilet had never been allowed to exist?’

There’s something great in the way that this question was phrased. If it had just been ‘What if the flushing toilet hadn’t been invented?’, we probably would have all gone off and started drawing alternative designs for toilets, mostly technical solutions. But the brief wasn’t questioning the technicality of the toilet – it asked for questioning why a flushing toilet wouldn’t have been allowed. What society wouldn’t allow flushing toilets? How could we pose a scenario that means the concept of a flushing toilet isn’t even considered by the people in a society?

The ways that people responded were so varied. One group envisioned a society where at some point the act of defecation had become social, with the produce of a defecation session being valued as fertiliser, and the position of the poo being revered in society. Our group conceived of a world where in the 14th Century a generation-long drought in Italy had created a religious reverence for water, which had spread throughout Europe. Somewhere along the line it had become illegal for faeces to touch water, so that the precious substance wouldn’t become contaminated. This led to the creation of numerous dry toilet systems, and little boats that would carry poo up and down rivers to sanctified dumping-grounds, pardon the pun.

Whilst the ideas can become silly and fanciful, the thing that Josefin’s exercise allowed was for thinking about different possibilities outside of our current paradigm - something it’s nearly impossible to break out of normally! So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Josefin, and a few of the other workshop participants had collectively written a paper imagining a world in which there had only been half the oil to start with.

The ideas behind this kind of counterfactual thinking are more about finding alternative ways to think, and using these to rethink things that we do today. In the case of the toilets example, perhaps thinking about the alternative societies might yield a way of thinking that helps make a better sanitation system today – and thinking about a society who only had half the oil to start with might help us move towards a less hydrocarbon-based economy.

Reference: Pargman, D., Eriksson, E., Höök, M., Tanenbaum, J., Pufal, M., Wangel, J. 2017. What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil. Energy Research & Social Science, 31C: 170-178.

So, this second method – take something that we take for granted today, and create a reason for it not to exist – can result in new thinking. This week on the podcast, we’ll be running exercises on that theme.

Before I go, I should mention that this is by no means an extensive overview of counterfactuals! There have been many great minds who’ve worked on this topic, from Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who looked at lots of the psychology of counterfactuals, to Catherine Gallagher’s book ‘Telling it Like it Wasn’t’ on counterfactual histories, to the numerous writers who create whole counterfactual worlds, to the billions and billions of people who have written about counterfactuals but whose work we can’t see because they only exist in a parallel universe.

Thanks for listening!

Further Reading

Coming soon! :)


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