Inspiring Loyalty by Asking, “What If?”
Skip to content
Leadership Dec 1, 2011

Inspiring Loyalty by Asking, “What If?”

Counterfactual thinking strengthens commitments to people and organizations

Based on the research of

Hal Ersner-Hershfield

Adam D. Galinsky

Laura J. Kray

Brayden King

“What if” is a powerful and emotional question. People often fantasize about how they would handle a tough situation if they got a second chance. At the other extreme, individuals may undergo a life change when someone they care about survives a near-calamity. They ponder, What if he or she had died?

Such counterfactual reflection, as it is called, can elicit intense feelings. People who imagine an alternative history of their company—a concept known as “counterfactual reflection”—tend to feel a greater commitment to their organization, which previous research has shown can affect job turnover, performance, and satisfaction. But the power of counterfactual thinking goes far beyond that. Research by Adam D. Galinsky, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of management, Brayden King, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, Hal Ersner-Herschfield, an assistant professor of marketing at New York University, and Laura Kray, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, plumbed the depths of counterfactual thinking to see how it influences commitment to people, organizations, and even one’s country.

“Counterfactual thinking creates a different processing style about the way we think about the world,” Galinsky says. Adds King, “We wanted to study how it affects people’s commitment to organizations and relationships, which are two of the most important things in our lives.”

Patriotism, Poignancy, and Projections

Galinsky, King, Ersner-Hershfield, and Kray conducted four studies employing a total of 237 undergraduate and MBA students. Patriotism was the focus of the first study, which involved 15 male and 25 female undergraduates, three-fourths of them from the United States. One subset was asked to imagine what their country and the world might be like if key events and people involved in their country’s history had not existed—that is, the counterfactual scenario. The other subset described reality and how it came to be as a result of pivotal events and people—the factual scenario. Both groups completed a ten-question assessment of patriotism, which asked them to rank their responses to statements like “I am proud to be a member of my home country” on a scale of one to seven. As expected, the counterfactual group scored significantly higher—an average score of 5.33—than the factual group, which scored 4.82. Both Americans and non-Americans exhibited the same pattern.

In the second study, 97 MBA students took a similar approach to analyzing their workplaces: One group considered a variety of scenarios that might have prevented the company from ever being founded, while the other group wrote down the most important events and people that actually led to the existence of their company. All the participants then answered eight questions to assess their personal connections to the company and their reasons for working there.

The corporate description that inspired the strongest employee commitment was, not surprisingly, the one that had both prosocial and counterfactual qualities.

This study also tested two related issues. One was what the authors label poignancy, or the perception that “something positive in one’s life will no longer be present.” To assess this, the subjects had to rate six emotions they might feel on their last day of work. Next, the participants chose among five different future trajectories for their company. The alternative-history subset displayed more poignancy, and 89 percent of that group chose one of the two rosiest trajectories, compared with 64 percent of the “factual” group.

Taking Action

Another way companies often try to build employee loyalty is through what the authors call “prosocial” policies. As Galinsky explains, these are companies with a mission statement “that talks about being a constructive force in society. Take an airline. They can frame not just to being the most efficient airline, but to be a force of justice in the world because they’re going to give people access to travel.” Prior research, he says, has already established that people are more committed to these types of organizations. So in the third study, Galinsky and his colleagues decided to see what would happen if another layer of choices, factual versus counterfactual, were added to the description of a hypothetical computer company. This required mixing and matching four different factors: prosocial policies, non-prosocial policies, a counterfactual history in which the company almost did not exist, and a factual history describing the hypothetical company’s origins.

The corporate description that inspired the strongest employee commitment was, not surprisingly, the one that had both prosocial and counterfactual qualities. “What’s important,” Galinsky says, “is that the counterfactual effect is driven by different processes than the prosocial. The prosocial is a direct effect”—that is, the company has a specific mission to which employees respond. By contrast, the counterfactual effect requires imagining something that did not, in fact, happen. That tends to affect people’s concept of fate—their job, for example, may feel like it was meant to be.

The fourth study was dramatically different from the others in structure but not results. To begin, 40 MBA students each chose six people who had been a significant influence in their career development. The students then envisioned an alternative history of their relationship with one of those contacts and the true history of another contact. Two weeks later, the participants were asked if they had by any chance e-mailed these significant contacts during the interim. Sixty-two percent had e-mailed the person whose alternative history they had imagined, whereas just 33 percent had e-mailed the other person.

“We honestly didn’t know if counterfactual thinking would lead to a change in behavior,” King recalls. “There had been enough evidence to show that counterfactual thinking led to changes in attitude, but people will often have thoughts without leading to action.” The participants felt more connected to and thus invested more in the person they thought about counterfactually.

In short, no matter how the questions were asked or the tests were structured, “when people have a story about a relationship or organization that involves a counterfactual, thinking about it in this way ends up leading to greater commitment,” King says.

Finding the Plot Twist

For corporate managers, this research might offer some pointers for motivating their work forces. Rather than presenting a straight synopsis of the company’s creation, “you can emphasize all the obstacles you had to overcome,” Galinsky suggests.

That is not to say counterfactual thinking is not without its risks—for example, it “might lead to a Panglossian vision,” the authors write. Employees might devote too much loyalty to a poorly run company, blissfully confident that it is fated to survive. “You can actually become overcommitted to an organization, and that may cause you to invest your time in some projects that are not worth your while,” King warns.

But on the whole, the authors found that counterfactual origin stories can have positive effects, whether for organizations or relationships. From extensive previous research, “we know that people’s commitment to institutions or relationships is really important to their happiness,” King notes. “Now we were able to point to an important psychological driver of commitment.”

Related reading on Kellogg Insight

Learning to Use Regret: Studies in the negative emotions and how to use them

Government or God? In times of uncertainty, people seek stability

On the Origin of Schools: The diversity of Arizona’s charter schools

Featured Faculty

Member of the Department of Management & Organizations faculty until 2012

Max McGraw Chair in Management and the Environment; Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer
Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning author and freelance writer specializing in health care, finance, and corporate social responsibility.
About the Research

Ersner-Hershfield, Hal, Adam D. Galinsky, Laura J. Kray, and Brayden G. King. 2010. “Company, Country, Connections: Counterfactual Origins Increase Organizational Commitment, Patriotism, and Social Investment.” Psychological Science. 21(10): 1479-1486.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. One Key to a Happy Marriage? A Joint Bank Account.
    Merging finances helps newlyweds align their financial goals and avoid scorekeeping.
    married couple standing at bank teller's window
  2. Take 5: Yikes! When Unintended Consequences Strike
    Good intentions don’t always mean good results. Here’s why humility, and a lot of monitoring, are so important when making big changes.
    People pass an e-cigarette billboard
  3. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  4. Will AI Eventually Replace Doctors?
    Maybe not entirely. But the doctor–patient relationship is likely to change dramatically.
    doctors offices in small nodules
  5. Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition Is Still Entrepreneurship
    ETA is one of the fastest-growing paths to entrepreneurship. Here's how to think about it.
    An entrepreneur strides toward a business for sale.
  6. Take 5: Research-Backed Tips for Scheduling Your Day
    Kellogg faculty offer ideas for working smarter and not harder.
    A to-do list with easy and hard tasks
  7. How to Manage a Disengaged Employee—and Get Them Excited about Work Again
    Don’t give up on checked-out team members. Try these strategies instead.
    CEO cheering on team with pom-poms
  8. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  9. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  10. The Appeal of Handmade in an Era of Automation
    This excerpt from the book “The Power of Human" explains why we continue to equate human effort with value.
    person, robot, and elephant make still life drawing.
  11. 2 Factors Will Determine How Much AI Transforms Our Economy
    They’ll also dictate how workers stand to fare.
    robot waiter serves couple in restaurant
  12. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  13. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  14. Sitting Near a High-Performer Can Make You Better at Your Job
    “Spillover” from certain coworkers can boost our productivity—or jeopardize our employment.
    The spillover effect in offices impacts workers in close physical proximity.
  15. How the Wormhole Decade (2000–2010) Changed the World
    Five implications no one can afford to ignore.
    The rise of the internet resulted in a global culture shift that changed the world.
  16. What’s at Stake in the Debt-Ceiling Standoff?
    Defaulting would be an unmitigated disaster, quickly felt by ordinary Americans.
    two groups of politicians negotiate while dangling upside down from the ceiling of a room
  17. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  18. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  19. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  20. 3 Traits of Successful Market-Creating Entrepreneurs
    Creating a market isn’t for the faint of heart. But a dose of humility can go a long way.
    man standing on hilltop overlooking city
Add Insight to your inbox.
More in Leadership