“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.
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.”
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