Monday, April 5, 2010

Counterfactual thinking

Publication of a paper on "counterfactual thinking -- considering a ”turning point” moment in the past and alternate universes had it not occurred" was announced a couple months ago in a news article on the website of the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. Such thinking, the article explains, "heightens one’s perception of the moment as significant, and even fated."

From What Might Have Been to What Must Have Been: Counterfactual Thinking Creates Meaning is the paper itself, describing research conducted by Laura Kray, an Associate Professor on the Haas faculty, and co-authors at Berkeley, Northwestern, Brigham Young University, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne [Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (January 2010, Vol. 98 No. 1, 106-118)].

The Haas article quotes Kray on the psychological function of this form of speculation:
"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."

She goes on to explain that
"The irony is that thinking counterfactually increases the perception that life’s path was meant to be, which ultimately imbues one’s life with significance."

Kray and her co-authors conclude that thinking through alternate ways that life and history might have turned out tend to convince the thinker that life is other than a product of chance, and that choice influences outcomes -- both positive effects when engagement in political or organizational culture is a goal.

Prior work has shown that people who think counterfactually tend to be more analytical than those who do not. Co-author Philip Tetlock, Kray's colleague in the UC Berkeley business school, has found that
"How we react to counterfactuals is a great test of how open or closed-minded we are on a topic. Some people are so confident they know how history would have unfolded, they try to shut the conversation down fast. Others are willing to mull over imaginative possibilities at great length."

Tetlock goes on to observe that
"In my work on 'expert political judgment,' I find that the more imaginative experts think about possible pasts, the better calibrated they are in attaching realistic probabilities to possible futures."

I don't know about you, but the term "counterfactual" tends to raise my blood pressure these days, and not just when university professors misuse the adjective as a noun.

Kray, et al., address reflective thinking -- mulling over how a set of outcomes that actually occurred might have developed differently if a prior, pivotal event or decision had gone differently. But the "counterfactual thinking" that has dominated U.S. news these past months has been of a different sort. We've recently seen a rash of counterfactual flak hurled by the right wing (from bona fide nut jobs to elected legislators and executives) aimed at blocking the current administration's political initiatives without regard to historical truth or reasoned conjecture about the future. For those who prefer hanging out under rocks to tracking news, consider these examples:

  • Wingnut conspiracy theorists stoked by elected congressmen and professional journalists invented a so-called "Birther" movement that aimed to invalidate the election of President Obama by repeatedly asserting falsehoods in the face of solid evidence disproving their lies.
  • Former governer and failed VP candidate Sarah Palin invented the "lie of the year" (according to fact-checkers at and reported on a Wall Street Journal blog) when she asserted in August 2009 that health care reform would empower government to rule on who should live or die via "death panels," an invention absent from any actual reform initiative in play then, before, or since.
  • Anti-tax apocalyptics congealed as an incoherent but highly energetic "Tea Party Movement" that constitutes what a February editorial in The Nation pegged as "a fantasy vision of a Ron Paul- meets-Ayn Rand twenty-first-century insurrection based on principles fuzzy enough to resonate with much of the populace."
  • "People who know better," Jane Mayer explains in The Trial (New Yorker, 15 Feb 2010), are deliberately distorting deep, long-standing, bipartisan commitment to U.S. legal and historical precedent -- contradicting their own prior, public, principled positions -- in the matter of bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to trial. As Attorney General Eric Holder, the subject of Mayer's article, put it, "There’s a desire to ignore the facts to try to score political points."

To be fair, counterfactual flak is an ongoing trend, to which the world was subjected by and during the prior U.S. administration as well. Remember the coalition of the duped? Dozens of nations, led by the United States and the United Kingdom were whipped into a frenzy over attacking Iraq by false, deliberately skewed intelligence regarding a mythical hoard of WMDs controlled by Saddam Hussein. Legislators in both the U.S. and U.K., and mainstream journalists of all stripes, failed to perform due diligence in challenging the assertions of known warmongers who propagated these myths. Casualties continue. Hundreds of thousands have died, and millions have been maimed or made to flee as refugees. Was a better outcome possible? Was deposing a sadistic brute and replacing him with ... however one would properly categorize today's Iraqi government ... worth the human cost of this war? It would take a massive application of counterfactual analysis to speculate responsibly, and none of the dead or wounded would benefit from the exercise.

At the risk of succumbing to a conspiracy hatched by New Yorker editor David Remnick to control subscribers' thoughts, let's skip ahead a couple of articles from Jane Mayer's piece in the issue cited above, to Malcom Gladwell's Drinking Games. Two-thirds through an exploration of one of humanity's most popular self-limiting habits, Gladwell explains researchers' findings that alcohol's "principal effect is to narrow our emotional and mental field of vision. [...] Drunkenness is myopia."

Perhaps that explains the state of the union.

If clearheaded analyzers and accurate predictors of political futures are enabled by their ability to discern, consider, and run what-if scenarios on past events that led to the present; and if fuzzy-thinkers can't see far enough to tell truths from lies amid the counterfactual fantasies spun to buttress partisan political interests ... might the beverages at all those Tea Parties have been spiked?

Back to that Haas article on the Kray study:
"Kray and Tetlock were first intrigued by counterfactual thinking’s relationship with fate following the 2000 presidential election. Kray recalls conservative commentators talking about how it was evident George W. Bush was destined to be president, and there appeared to be no perception that the race could have just as easily gone the other way."

There you have it. The right wing wackos have been thick-as-a-brick drunk for a decade. Maybe even ... longer?

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