Counterfactual Thinking Is the Key to Creativity — and a Vaccine against Future Shock

Institute For The Future
Mar 10 · 9 min read

By Jane McGonigal, PhD

An essay from After Shock: The World’s Foremost Futurists Reflect on 50 Years of Future Shock―and Look Ahead to the Next 50, edited by John Schroeter. Abundant World Institute, 2020.

I teach a class at Stanford University’s continuing studies program called “How to Think Like a Futurist.” On the first day of class, I always challenge the students to try to stump me and my fellow researchers at the Institute for the Future. I ask them to come up with a list of things they believe will not change in the future, things that are true about how the world works today that they believe will still be true 10 years from now. For example: Humans will still need oxygen to breathe, or countries will always have borders, or my favorite one that I hear most often is about human reproduction: It takes the DNA of two people to make a baby, one man and one woman. That’s been true for three million years. It definitely will be true for the next 10.

Together we create a list of things that they would truly be shocked by if it were to fundamentally change in the future. And whatever my students come up with, I promise I’ll take their ideas back to my colleagues, and we’ll try to prove them wrong. We’ll look for clues that, in fact, those things that seem unchangeable might already be changing. Because if there’s one thing professional futurists know how to do, it’s how to keep our minds open to the idea that literally anything can become different. And what do you know? Just last fall when I was teaching this class, a few weeks in, a news headline came out: The first “three-parent” baby was born, using a new experimental method that’s legal only in a few places in the world. It’s called pro-nuclear transfer, and it combines the genetic material of two women and one man to make one baby, with three genetic parents. This method is already being used today, primarily to help parents avoid passing on genetic diseases. Meanwhile, I discovered signals of even more significant change: Other scientists are credibly exploring methods using stem cells and targeted gene editing to create babies with the DNA from two same-sex parents, or even from a single parent.

Talk about a shocking future! Who among us feels ready for a world in which baby-making is so radically different? But thinking about the most shocking futures we can imagine is important, I tell my students. You may not be geneticists, and you may not be thinking about having a baby any time soon. But this kind of sudden change of what’s possible is always worth paying attention to. To avoid being blindsided by the future, you must develop mental habits of actively challenging what you believe could or could not be different. You have to get yourself unstuck about what you think is possible, by always looking for evidence that literally anything can change, even something that has been true for all of evolutionary history up until now.

This habit of unsticking your mind is incredibly important. It’s the basis of all creativity and personal reinvention. To create something new, or make any kind of change, you have to be able to imagine how things can be different. And if you want to take advantage of the rapid disruption of what’s possible, instead of being shocked by it, you need a more flexible, open mind.

Professional futurists have all kinds of exercises for practicing this habit, for helping get our brains unstuck about what we think is possible, what we can believe can be different. In my work at the Institute for the Future and in the futures thinking courses I teach to all kinds of students at Stanford University — from design students and computer science undergraduates to MBA and law students — I focus on preparing their minds with three exercises in particular. These three exercise are all forms of “counterfactual thinking,” or attempting to vividly imagine and simulate in our minds realities that run “counter” to the “facts” of our present. For just a minute or two, we immerse ourselves in possibilities of which we have no firsthand experience. We transport ourselves to alternate realities. Most importantly, we fight against our brains’ natural bias to assume that what has actually already happened will always happen again in the future. We retrain our brains to sense and believe in the possibility for change, faster.

We don’t have to be shocked by the future, or traumatized by the speed of change. Here, then, are the three exercises, grounded in the scientific practice of counterfactual thinking, that we all can practice any time, any place to strengthen our powers of imagination and mitigate society’s risk of experiencing future shock.

Exercise #1: Predict the Past

Where are you right now? Earlier today, you made a decision to be where you are, doing what you’re doing.

But what if when you woke up today, you had decided to do something different? What if, on the spur of the moment, you’d decided to make a different plan for today? In this alternate version of reality, where might you be right now, and doing what, instead? What choice did you make?

Picture this alternate reality as vividly as you can, as if you had really made this different decision. Close your eyes and try to see yourself in a different place. What are you doing? Why did you choose to do this instead? How do you feel about this alternate version of your day?

This is a technique that futurists often use, called “predicting the past.” You look back at something you’ve actually done in your life, a decision you made or an action you took. And then, you imagine that instead of making that choice, you made another one. You can think about little daily decisions, like you just did, or bigger ones, turning points in your life, like: What if I hadn’t moved when I did? What if I had taken that job or opportunity I turned down? This technique is focused on the past, but it’s useful to futurists because it helps us see how our present reality could have been different. It wasn’t inevitable that it turned out this way. And if the present wasn’t inevitable, then the future isn’t inevitable, either. We can make decisions today that will shape it to be something different, just like we made decisions in the past that shape our present.

Exercise #2: Remember the Future

This time, you’re going to try to imagine yourself doing something you have never done before, something you’ve never in your life even considered doing up until right this very minute. And to come up with this previously unimaginable future, we’ll use the X-Y-Z method. Here’s how it works:

X is something you love to do. It can be anything. Reading, painting, dancing, cooking. Just pick ONE thing you love to do, and that’s your X.

Y is a person you care about. Anyone you know at all, as long as they’re still living. Pick a Y.

Z is a favorite far-away place, somewhere you’ve actually been at least once in your life. Pick a Z.

Okay, now imagine it’s one year from today. You are doing X with Y in Z. You are doing the thing you love to do with the person you care about in this favorite faraway place. Can you imagine it? Try to see it in your mind like a movie, as clearly as if it has already happened and you are replaying it in your mind like a favorite memory.

This is a technique called “remembering the future.” You take activities and people and places that you already have some real-life experience with, and then you combine them in ways that are unfamiliar, unexperienced. And then you try to picture yourself, as vividly as you can, doing this thing you’ve never done before. And you get bonus benefit if you can come up with a plausible explanation for how this strange future could come to pass. What logical turn of events could take you to this place, with this person, to do this thing? Often it can be hard to come up with a plausible explanation for a randomly generated possible future. But something interesting about this technique is that every time you remember a future, you rate it as more likely to happen. That’s because picturing something vividly in your imagination creates something similar to a memory in your mind. When you try to imagine it again in the future, your brain can conjure it up faster — it has a memory of thinking of it before. And your brain says, well, if it’s easy to imagine, it must be possible! So this is a powerful habit to cultivate, because it strengthens your ability to believe that things that have not yet happened can happen in the future. And the more ways you can imagine how the future could be different from the things you‘ve already experienced, the better you’ll be at envisioning change when you need it most.

Exercise #3: Hard Empathy

Finally, you’re going to imagine yourself experiencing something you find it very hard to relate to, something that feels so different from your own life that it’s almost unimaginable. The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to go to any news source and look for a story about someone experiencing something I’ve never personally experienced. For example, I recently read a story in the New York Times about two young women, sisters, living in rural India. The village they live in is so conservative that whenever the young women go into the nearest city, their male cousins and uncles create a human chain around them, their big hands linked, to protect them from any contact with outside men.

I’d like you to imagine what it would be like if, in your daily life, wherever you live right now, you were expected to live by these customs. What if you were expected to allow relatives to create a human chain around you whenever you go somewhere you might encounter strangers? Or what if you were expected to be the one holding hands, and creating that human chain of protection for someone else? This will be hard, most likely, but can you at least try to picture it — even if it seems unbelievable, unimaginable — can you imagine yourself living by these rules in your own life, going to work, or school, or traveling this way? And what that might feel like?

This skill you’ve just practiced is called “hard empathy.” It turns out there are two kinds of empathy. The first kind, the easy kind, happens when we can relate to what someone else is feeling, when we’ve gone through the same thing ourselves — we have direct experience of it — so our minds and bodies can easily conjure up what someone else might be feeling. And that kind of easy empathy is like a shared emotion — we can feel it because we’ve felt it before. But hard empathy, that’s a more creative kind of empathy. It’s what we have to conjure up when we don’t have any personal experience with what someone else is going through. When we have no firsthand details to draw upon, when we have to make that imaginative leap to see if we can try to understand what someone else’s life might be like, that’s hard empathy. And when we can make that leap, when we can feel in our own minds and bodies how someone else’s life could be different from ours, we get unstuck, and we get better at thinking about change. Because if someone else can live a life completely different from ours today, then it’s possible that we ourselves, and anyone around us, can lead a completely different life tomorrow.

***

These three mental habits you’ve just learned and practiced — predicting the past, remembering the future, and hard empathy — I call them the magic triangle of “what if.” You can use this triangle any time you want to be more creative or flexible in your thinking. Not only are these counterfactual techniques fast and fun, they’ve also all been linked in the scientific literature to increased innovation, open-mindedness, inventiveness, and capacity for change. And that’s because, at their core, they are all techniques for building your mental capacity to recognize and adapt to change, by imagining how anything could be different.

To invent something new, or make any kind of change in your society, you first have to be able to imagine how things can be different. Remember: the phrase “make a difference” literally means to make something different. And that’s the true power of thinking like a futurist: You develop the power to make your future different — whatever you want that difference to be.

Jane McGonigal, PhD, is a research director at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California, and author of the New York Times bestselling books Reality is Broken and SuperBetter.

Urgent Futures

Dispatches from Institute for the Future, a nonprofit…

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Dispatches from Institute for the Future, a nonprofit thinktank in Silicon Valley that helps organizations and the public think about the future to make better decisions in the present.

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