Counterfactual Thinking

Quick Read: We have all seen those ads that start with “what if…”? But did you know that behind the facade of their deliberate wacky-ness there is a method to their madness. 

In a world where Rhinoceros are domesticated pets who wins the second world war?

Or sample this..

In a world where a piano is a weapon, not a musical instrument, on what does Scott Joplin play the Maple Leaf Rag?

Counterfactuals. That’s what Amy and Sheldon call them.

First the definition. 

Counterfactual thinking is a concept in psychology that involves the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred; something that is contrary to what actually happened. (source)

It turns out that counterfactual thinking can have a huge influence over us.

To help us find greater meaning in our lives

In her book, ” The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters ,” Emily Esfahani Smith suggests that counterfactual thinking can be a way to find greater meaning in significant past events, be they positive or negative.

The Power of Meaning

In one experiment referenced in the book, researchers had asked participants to think about a turning point event in their lives – be it positive/ negative /or neutral.

Subsequently these participants were segregated into three groups.

  • Group 1 (counter factual thinking): these participants were asked to describe how their life would look if the turning point event had never happened
  • Group 2 (factual thinking): these participants were simply asked to recount the turning point event in detail
  • Group 3 (meaning association): these participants were asked to reflect on why the turning point event was meaningful.

The researchers then asked these participants to respond to two statements about their turning point event: “It made me who I am today” and “It gave meaning to my life.”

Results showed that that participants in group 1 perceived the turning point events as more meaningful than those in group 2 (those primed towards factual thinking) or even those in group 3 (those primed towards meaning association)!

As Esfahani Smith points out in the book, research suggests that counterfactual thinking helps us find meaning in our lives for two reasons:

  1. We’re able to attribute greater benefits to significant past events. Participants in the study mostly imagined that their lives would be worse if the event hadn’t happened.
  2. It helps us tell more coherent stories about our lives – as though everything we have experienced has happened for a reason.

Influence on advertising response

As per (1) and (2) above, if counterfactual thinking indeed makes us better story tellers and helps us become more cognizant and appreciative of our own narratives, could it also have an impact on how we assess and internalize the narratives and stories that we are exposed to on a daily basis a.k.a advertising and marketing?

That’s exactly the hypothesis that these two researchers had set to validate and presented their learnings in the paper titled Counterfactual Thinking and Advertising Responses.

In a nutshell their research proved that invoking counterfactual thinking before an exposure to the advertising message can prime us up to be more receptive to and become more critical of the (key persuasive) message that follows.

No wonder many NGO marketing messages are structured around counterfactuals.

tapproject_print

Agency: Droga5 New York

Or even those ads like the following recent ones from Amtrak that are made with the objective to persuade the viewers and drive a behavioral change.

Can you think of any other advertising examples that ride on counterfactuals?

(Featured Image: What If )

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