Technology and the Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking

You’re left wondering what could have been, and this kind of counterfactual thinking is like kryptonite for happiness. The abolitionist poet, John Greenleaf Whittier said it best, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.”

In Greek Mythology, no one can resist the calls of The Sirens. These half birds and half women sat along the island cliffs and would lure passing sailors to their destruction with their irresistibly beautiful voices.

By Matt Johnson, PhD and Prince Ghuman

Aware of this danger, Odysseus had each member of his ship plug their ears with beeswax before they passed. This protected him and his crew against their enchanting songs. There was just one issue: Merely finding out what the songs sounded like was also alluring. He unplugged his ears, but not before having himself tied to the mast of the ship so he was prevented from being taken by their calls.

Today, we all find ourselves in Odysseus’ position. But now, instead of trying to resist the pull of The Sirens, we’re trying to resist our own technologies. And just like Odysseus, we’ve gone to great lengths to restrain ourselves against their pulls: From mobile apps to tell you to get off your mobile device, to physical lockboxes to put your phone in, to full-fledged digital detox camps.

A lot of concern about technology has focused on their addictive nature, and how apps and mobile devices are designed to keep us online for as long as possible. The utilization of variable reward schedules, for example, seems to increase the frequency with which apps are visited.

Recent estimates indicate that 80% of the U.S. population – children included own a smartphone. As these devices become more commonplace, we have to ask a slightly different question: what does the mere presence of these technologies do to our mental processing? Like Odysseus and the Sirens, does just being around technology pull at us?

How Smartphones Affects Attention and Social Cognition

To test this effect, researchers had participants complete a battery of assessments to assess simple mental processing abilities such as mental flexibility, cognitive control, and attention. They had one group of participants complete this while a smartphone rested face down on the table and the other group who did this in the absence of any devices.

The result? The mere presence of the smartphone leads to decreased performance. And the more difficult the task, the greater the presence’s impact. It turns out you don’t actually need to use the device for it to impact your attention.

But distraction is just the beginning. The presence of smart devices also impacts our social interaction. Unsurprisingly, taking out your phone mid-conversation brings down the quality of the conversation for both parties.

But even the presence of a phone is enough to do this on its own. In a recent set of experiments, Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia set out to find just how disruptive the mere presence of a cell phone is. Participants were groups of 3-5 friends and family, who were invited to take part in a study at a local cafe. Upon arriving, they were randomly assigned to have their phones on the table or to put the phones away.

Did just having the phones on the table have an impact? The phone on the table group reported being significantly more distracted, and also enjoyed their social interactions much less. All of this just by resting on the table in the eyeshot.

Follow up work by Dunn’s lab has found that this effect also extends to social interactions amongst strangers: Merely having your cell phone on you significantly reduces the likelihood that you’ll smile at the person across from in a waiting room.

Why is this? We’re not actually using the cell phone, so why does it influence our mood and how we interact? The answer seems to lie in our tendency towards counterfactual thinking.

The Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking

Imagine rushing through the airport only to find you missed your flight. What hurts more, missing it by 5 minutes, or missing it by 30 minutes? Daniel Kahneman posed this exact scenario to participants and found that the 5-minute scenario was much more painful. Even though the outcome for both scenarios is the same, it’s much easier to imagine being on time when you’re only 5 minutes late.

This underlies the impact of counterfactual thinking. We’re prone to compare our current situation with ‘what could have been’? How happy we are with a given scenario is relative to this hypothetical reference point.

The most interesting examples of the power of counterfactual thinking come from studying Olympians on the award podium. It’s an iconic moment – representing your country and receiving one of the highest awards in your sport.

However, when the faces of the medal recipients are systematically analyzed, interesting differences emerge as well. Independent judges watched clips of the medal winners standing on stage, and without being told which medal they were awarded, judged how happy they looked.

As you might imagine, the gold medal winners look the happiest. But interesting differences emerged between bronze and silver. Bronze medal winners appeared significantly happier! Why would that be?

The answer lies in counterfactual thinking. Imagine being in the shoes of the bronze winner: You’re simply happy to be up there with a medal. Your point of comparison is going home with nothing at all.

But for the silver medalist, the point of comparison is different: You received a silver medal, but you could have received gold.

You’re left wondering what could have been, and this kind of counterfactual thinking is like kryptonite for happiness. The abolitionist poet, John Greenleaf Whittier said it best, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.”

How Counterfactual Thinking Plays a Role in Technology

This is the double-edged sword of counterfactual thinking: When you compare to a worse potential outcome, you feel better about the current situation. But when this comparison is to a better potential outcome, the current situation feels worse. It’s all relative to the reference point.

Consider this in the context of having your cell phone, face down, at the dinner table. Sure, you may be enjoying the dinner table conversation. But what kind of enjoyment awaits you on the other side of your iPhone screen?

Think about it. On the other end side of the iPhone could literally be anything. Someone important could have texted you something important. You could have a new notification on your IG account. There could be important world news you haven’t heard about yet.

The smartphone represents an endless range of possible experiences. This prove to be incredibly stiff competition, making even the most engrossing of conversations seem sub-par by comparison. Like the songs of the Siren, our attention is warped by the mere prospect of what could be.

Distraction has always been a foe. Some of the world’s most ancient philosophers admonished us to treat our attention with care, to remain vigilant in our focus, and to not give in to wasted thought.

This is no more true than for the Greeks, perhaps inspired by the mythology of The Sirens. Aristotle and Socrates worried that the biggest innovation of their day would forever corrupt our attention. What insidious technology were they referring to? The invention of the written word.

It’s difficult to imagine what they might think of the potency of today’s smartphones.

blindsight bookMatt Johnson, PhD and Prince Ghuman are founders of “PopNeuro – a Neuromarketing Blog for the masses” and co-author of “Blindsight – The (mostly) hidden ways marketing reshapes our brains”.  You can check out more of their writing here.

This article originally appeared in PopNeuro. Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash.

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