Imagine for a moment that you walk into a bank. There are 50 other people in the bank. A robber walks in and fires his weapon once. You are shot in the right arm.
Now if you were honestly describing this event to your friends and coworkers the next day, do you describe it as lucky or unlucky?
I’ve been thinking about positive counterfacts. How a positive mindset can enable happiness and stronger resiliency.
Because I would describe it as lucky.
But Shawn Achor reports 7/10 people think it is unlucky…
“When I pose this same question to executives in my training sessions, the response is generally (and vociferously) divided about 70/ 30: 70 percent claim it is a supremely unfortunate event; the other 30 percent claim to have been very fortunate indeed. It’s telling enough that the same event could inspire such different interpretations, but the real insight comes when I ask them to explain how they came to their decisions. People who are in the unfortunate group say something like the following: “I could have walked into any bank, at any time. This kind of thing almost never happens. How unlucky is it that I happened to be there? And that I was shot?!” “There’s a bullet in my arm; that’s objectively unfortunate.” “I entered the bank perfectly healthy and I left in an ambulance. I don’t know about you, Shawn, but that’s not my idea of a good time.”
One of my favorite responses came from a banker named Elsie with an impeccable British accent. “This is fundamentally inconvenient,” she said dryly. But my all-time favorite response, which I’ve actually heard more than once (and always from someone on Wall Street): “There were at least fifty other people in the bank. Surely someone deserved getting shot more than I did.” (With a response like that, I’m not sure that’s true.) These people cannot understand how a typical bank errand turned gunshot wound could be construed as fortunate.
But then they hear the other side’s explanations of the same event: “I could have been shot somewhere far worse than my arm. I could have died. I feel incredibly fortunate.” “It’s amazing that nobody else got hurt. There were at least 50 other people in the bank, including children. It’s unbelievably lucky that everybody lived to tell the tale.”
Even though the responses differ dramatically, the point is that every brain in the room does the exact same thing. It invents—and that’s an important word—a “counterfact.”
A counterfact is an alternate scenario our brains create to help us evaluate and make sense of what really happened. 20 Here’s what I mean. The people who saw the outcome as unlucky imagined an alternate scenario of not having been shot at all; in comparison, their outcome seems very unfortunate. But the other group invented a very different alternate scenario: that they could have gotten shot in the head and died, or that many other people could have been hurt. Compared with that, surviving is very fortunate.
Here is the crucial part: Both the counterfacts are completely hypothetical. Because it’s invented, we actually have the power in any given situation to consciously select a counterfact that makes us feel fortunate rather than helpless. And choosing a positive counterfact, besides simply making us feel better, sets ourselves up for the whole host of benefits to motivation and performance we now know accompanies a positive mindset.
On the other hand, choosing a counterfact that makes us more fearful of the adversity actually makes it loom larger than it really is. For example, in one interesting study, researchers at the University of Virginia asked participants to stand on a skateboard at the top of a hill and estimate the slope of the hill below them. The more frightened and uncomfortable the subject was standing on a skateboard, the higher and steeper the slope appeared. When we choose a counterfact that makes us feel worse, we are actually altering our reality, allowing the obstacle to exert far greater influence over us than it otherwise should.”
I think this is a potentially powerful technique for helping mental resilience.