Counterfactual thinking creates meaning (of the futures)

This is a lovely cartoon itself, but it may also work as an excellent illustration to the recently published research paper From what might have been to what must have been: Counterfactual thinking creates meaning, published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The above link is the abstract of the paper, which is very small, and only gives a glimpse of the study that points to the causal relationships between ‘counterfactual thinking’ and ‘meaning making’.

Counterfactual thinking is defined here quite broadly, as ‘imagining alternatives to the past’ and is somewhat different from the one offered by Wikipedia at the moment (see Counterfactual thinking) while close to the one suggested in the now classical volume of studies on the matter (The Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking).

I don’t have yet a copy of the paper (just requested it from one of the authors) and can only rely on a review by the Science Daily (‘Counterfactual’ Thinkers Are More Motivated and Analytical, Study Suggests). The review have multiple takes on the study, ranging from the links of the ‘counterfactual thinking’ capacity to meaning making, logical and analytical reasoning, and a narrative device.

I was obviously interested in the relationships between the past(s) and the future(s), hinted at in the review: “I find that the more imaginatively experts think about possible pasts, the better calibrated they are in attaching realistic probabilities to possible futures,” writes one of the study authors, Philip Tetlock. I would argue that the capacity to think differently about the past, reinterpret it and seek for (even if) imaginary versions should correlate to a capacity to imagine more diverse possible futures, in other words, to a scenario thinking.

This could even lead to a new game, or an exercise of some sort, that would involve playing with the pasts, as a prerequisite for Summ()n’s playing with the future skillset. If I remember correctly, it was an example by James Gee who told the story about kids playing one of the Civilization games and trying to ‘reengineer’ the history in such a way that native Americans would not lose to the Spanish conquistadors at the end. I would suggest that such a capacity, and a skill will have to better prepare people for ‘future games’. An interesting hypothesis to play with!

NB: This entry was originally written for the Summ()n’s blog>, and appeared here.

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