63 - The power of thought experiments in making decisions in uncertainty



The difference between humans and other species on earth is that we can shift both back and ahead in time, while the rest can only go back.

For long I used to think of thought experiments as something that scientists and philosophers did. I was wrong. Thought experiments are devices of the imagination that can help us map out how an important decision may play out in the future. That self-reassurance helps us deal with uncertainty.

There are three specific things that the best thought experiments do in the context of decision-making. Each of these things is useful, but combined their effect is undeniable. What are these three things?

  • Thought experiments allow us to engage in something called prospective hindsight (place yourself in the future and look back at the path that got you there)
  • they allow us to closely consider failure (imagine your dream project has been a complete washout–now work out why that happened), and finally
  • Thought experiments allow us to consider the **unseen implications **of every big decision along the way to a goal (ask at every stage, And then what?)

Now some of you will say, why do you keep saying ‘allow us to do this, allow us to do that’. Well, that’s because in thought experiments there’s room to think negatively, to think backward–and these aren’t things we normally do. Not because they are banned by law but because we don’t permit ourselves to because of social conditioning. It’s therefore important to tell yourself that it’s okay to go against the grain. So, step 1: Lose the blinders.

Right! So those three things that thought experiments allow you to do–prospective hindsight, negative outcomes, and digging out the unseen–each of these things can be practiced using a specific approach. There’s backcasting, which I wrote about earlier and which is about looking back. Then there are two ways to consider negative outcomes while making a plan–mental contrasting and premortems. Both work wonderfully in personal and group settings alike. And finally, there’s second-order thinking–the classic ‘and then what?’ for every action/decision you take.

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