I'm hoping you'll forgive the political underpinnings of this story, but I found it too fascinating to pass up. Shankar Vedantam is an excellent writer at The Washington Post, and he writes about the mindâ€”how it works and why it works the way it does.
Yesterday, his story "Bush and Counterfactual Confidence" has insights that reach far beyond his narrow subject of political decision making. Counterfactual thinking is something that probably everybody does at least a little bit. You make a decision to change something, and as you look back at that decision later, you tell yourself it was a good decision because the world would most assuredly be worse if you had done nothing. The thing is, that's the mind rationalizing the decision, you don'tâ€”you can't, actuallyâ€”know if the alternate future you imagine would have come to pass as exactly as you imagined it.
Vedantam uses Bush as the example, but it's easy to leave the hot potato world of politics out of it. Let's look at an example closer to home. Three years ago ASAE and its related organizations and The Center for Association Leadership and its related organizations merged. Playing the part of the optimist, I could use counterfactual thinking to imagine a world where ASAE and The Center continued on a competitive path until they bludgeoned each other so completely that neither was successful and the association sector as a whole suffered. I would then say that the decision to merge was obviously good.
Here's the thing that Vedantam points out about counterfactualsâ€”while they sound nice and logical in our heads, all they really do is confirm our preconceived notions. I could just as easily take the pessimistic view and say ASAE and The Center competition would have led to the creative, forward-thinking programming as each side tried to one-up the other, and the sector as a whole would have been much better off without the merger.
Why is this interesting at all? For one thing, I think it's important to realize why we're dreaming up the alternative universes that we doâ€”we're doing it because we want to validate or invalidate a point we already want to make. In addition, there is some research on tendencies that Vedantam reports. One finding is that people who tend to engage in counterfactual thinking are actually worse at predicting future events than people who resist counterfactual thinking. Another is that people who use counterfactual thinking when analyzing decisions tend to make decisions that take them to the extremeâ€”either extremely good or extremely badâ€”while others tend to make decisions where the rewards aren't as great, but the risks aren't as high either.
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