Counterfactual thinking is one of the ways people respond to unwelcome news. Fuschia Sirois (University of Sheffield) describes the coping mechanisms by which Remain voters sought to deal with the referendum result. ‘If only’ thinking – for example, at the thought of a second vote – tended to make them more unhappy, while focussing on the fact that there was a vote (which is a ‘just world’ perspective) improved their mood.

The unexpected outcome of the EU referendum has spurred plenty of discussion and research on why voters chose to Leave. There has been much less focus on how Remain voters coped with the outcome in the days following the vote, and the implications for their well-being.

In a recent study, Aarti Iyer and I investigated the types of counterfactual thoughts that Remain voters engaged in days after the vote, and whether these thoughts protected their well-being, or harmed it. In particular, we were interested in how enduring just-world beliefs – tendencies to believe that the world is a just and fair place – might influence the types of counterfactual thoughts that Remain voters had. People can hold just world beliefs about the fairness of processes (procedural just-world beliefs) and about the fairness of outcomes (distributive just-world beliefs).

Counterfactual thoughts post-Brexit

When people experience an unexpected turn of events, such as the Brexit vote, it is not uncommon for them to mentally undo these events and imagine a more favourable outcome. “What if more people had turned out to vote and the result had been to stay?” These upward counterfactual thoughts can make people feel worse as they contemplate what could have been. Despite this, in many circumstances upward counterfactuals are actually adaptive, as they give people a blueprint for taking action to ensure that the unfavourable outcome does not repeat itself. Upward counterfactuals can also be used to regain a sense of control over uncontrollable events and an uncertain future.

But when the event is both unexpected and will probably not occur again, engaging in “if only” thinking may actually be psychologically harmful and perpetuate distress rather than alleviate it. The Brexit vote was exactly the type of event: upward counterfactuals would not be adaptive. In these circumstances, thinking about how things could have turned out worse (“At least there was a vote”) may actually be more adaptive, as these downward counterfactuals can repair a negative mood and restore a sense of control.

To test the types of counterfactuals that Remain voters made and their impact on well-being, we conducted a study with 441 Remain voters within the 12–35 days after the Brexit vote (5-28 July 2016). We asked participants to read a description of the events leading up to the Brexit vote, which emphasised the closeness of the Leave-Remain vote split (52-48). Half of the participants were asked to generate upward and downward counterfactuals in response to the Brexit vote. The other half were asked only to recall facts about when and how they learned of the vote outcome, to serve as a neutral control condition. Everyone also answered questions about their mood, their just-world beliefs, and their perceptions about the vote.

As expected, reading about the Brexit vote increased negative mood and feelings of dissatisfaction about the conduct of the vote, but not its outcome. It seemed that the Remain voters were already highly dissatisfied about the outcome and so there was little room for change. Importantly, those who generated counterfactuals experienced greater increases in negative mood than those who did not. Given that the majority of the counterfactuals generated focused on how things could have been better (78% upwards counterfactuals), this was not surprising. However, not everyone made distressing upward counterfactuals.

The role of just-world beliefs

We also investigated how just-world beliefs influenced the type of counterfactuals that Remain voters made. The results were both intriguing and somewhat counter-intuitive. Remain voters who held enduring just-world beliefs about the fairness of procedures and outcomes actually generated fewer upward counterfactuals about Brexit. These individuals were also less dissatisfied with the conduct and the outcome of the vote.

However, holding distributive just-world beliefs appeared to be more protective overall. Remain voters who held enduring beliefs about the fairness of outcomes in the world made more protective downward counterfactuals about Brexit, which helped to reduce their negative mood and dissatisfaction with the vote and how it was conducted.

Although this result may seem surprising, consider that distributive just-world beliefs have been linked to rationalising rather than challenging the status quo. As undesirable as a Leave vote may have been for those who voted Remain, counterfactuals that challenge the result – by simulating how different actions by the parties who called for it may have changed the outcome – is tantamount to challenging the status quo. In the end, making fewer “if only” and a greater number of “at least” thoughts may have been the most psychologically healthy response to the unexpected outcome of Brexit, a vote that 92% of those in our study believed would not happen again (See Figure 1).


As discussion continues about the possibility of a second Brexit vote, it may be that the counterfactual thoughts it inspires will stir up more frustration and distress – rather than allow Remain voters to adjust and move on.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.

Fuschia Sirois is a Reader in Social and Health Psychology at the University of Sheffield.

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