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If Only…?

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

Have you ever asked yourself, “What if I had taken a different route? Then I would not have been involved in the auto accident?” Or, “what if I had left the house five minutes earlier, I would have made the flight, and not missed it?” What if…., then life would have happened differently?

We all posit these “counterfactuals” scenarios, thinking that if we had done something slightly different, a different and often more positive outcome would have occurred.

But, most of us (including me) do not realize that we are participating in an “undoing” mind game. I realized it only after reading The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis (W. W. Norton & Company, New York 2017). While the author focuses on the decades long relationship between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the last part of the book discusses Kahneman’s fourth heuristic- the “simulation heuristic” which he developed after learning of the tragic death of his nephew who was killed in an air plane crash about a week before he was to be discharged from the Israeli Air Force. He found his mind wondering, “If only my nephew had been discharged a week earlier? Or, if only he had done something different moments before the crash?” If only…. (Id. at 298-300.) He realized the fantasy he was pursuing and that everyone does it. His new heuristic

…was all about the power of unrealized possibilities to contaminate people’s minds. As they moved through the world, people ran simulations of the future. What if…? They based their judgments and decisions in part on these imagined scenarios. (Id. at 300.)

In short, people “…created alternatives to reality by undoing reality. (Id. at 301.) He also discovered that the closer the “miss” (i.e., missing a flight by 5 minutes versus missing the flight by 30 minutes), the more upset people became even though both “misses” produced the same result- a flight departing without them! (Id. at 301-2.)

Kahneman discovered that the emotions tied to our “undoing” of events were regret, frustration and envy. Regret is obvious in that we can all understand that we ‘regret” missing the flight. Frustration is also understandable as who has not been frustrated at missing a flight and then having to go through the process of finding another later flight. But envy is different. As Kahneman explains,

…to experience envy, it is sufficient to have a vivid image of oneself in another person’s shoes; it is not necessary to have a plausible scenario of how one came to occupy those shoes. (Id.)

That is, while regret and frustration requires us to imagine ourselves in someone’s else’s shoes, envy does not. (Id.)

And so, our imagination obeys certain rules, to “undo” things:

One rule was that the more items there were to undo to create some alternative reality, the less likely the mind was to undo them. People seemed less likely to undo someone being killed by a massive earthquake than they were to undo a person’s being killed by a bolt of lightning, because undoing the earthquake required them to undo all the earthquake had done. “The more consequences an event has, the larger the change that is involved in eliminating that event. (Id. at 303.)
…And the more there is to undo, the less likely the mind is even to try. ( 304.)

Kahneman also found that our “… minds tended to remove whatever felt surprising or unexpected.” (Id.) Thus, we would “undo” the different route someone took that day or “undo” the timing of the event. But, if a person did everything the way she did every day, but this time, met with an untoward consequence, our minds would find it difficult to “undo” the scenario since it was not out of the ordinary. (Id. at 304-5.)

Reading these pages brought me to an “ah-hah” moment. I never realized the “what if” or “if only” scenarios I played in my mind. No doubt, all of the parties with whom I mediate, also partake in this heuristic. The issue is whether I should call them on it, and make them aware that they are attempting to “undo” reality?

… Just something to think about. 


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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