Futurists are big believers in contingency. Historians will tell you that the doesn't unfold along a single path, and some of the most brilliant scholars of the last fifty years– Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson, Eric Wolf (who's more an anthropologist, but still)– spent their careers rescuing forgotten movements or radical thinkers from "the enormous condescension of history," as Thompson put it. Likewise, historians of technology have tried to explain how familiar technologies came to take their form, and how once-tentative choices and uncertainties came to be replaced by a sense that the shape of our material world is logical and inevitable.
Given this, I was interested in this study described in Science Daily:
According to a new study, counterfactual thinking — considering a "turning point" moment in the past and alternate universes had it not occurred — heightens one's perception of the moment as significant, and even fated. Armed with a sense that life may not be arbitrary, counterfactual thinkers are more motivated and analytical in organizational settings, the study suggests….
The team conducted experiments with student volunteers to discover how counterfactual thinking heightens the meaningfulness of key life experiences. The researchers asked one group of students a question in which the language prompted counterfactual thinking; the other group was asked to respond only factually.
For example, when asked to write an essay on how they met a close friend, the counterfactual group was asked to explain all of the ways they might have not met this friend. The factual group was only asked to recount the factual details of the first encounter. When reflecting on the alternative — never having become friends — the participants who were prompted to think counterfactually viewed their friendships as more meaningful. The factual group did not experience that feeling of significance….
"What we found is that people indicate stronger commitment to an organization when they think counterfactually and it helps to define who they are on a professional level," says Haas School Associate Professor Laura Kray…. "Although you might think that counterfactually thinking is just going to lead me down a path of regret, it is actually very functional in terms of helping people establish relationships and make sense of cause and effect…. Counterfactual reflection about pivotal moments in the past helps people to weave a coherent life story."…
"The irony is that thinking counterfactually increases the perception that life's path was meant to be," says Kray, "which ultimately imbues one's life with significance." While one might argue that believers of destiny would be less inclined to be analytical, the research also found that people who think counterfactually and find meaning in their lives are more apt to believe life is not a product of chance and that they can make valuable choices.