Rewinding & Rewriting: The Alternate Universes in Our Heads

May 21, 2018
Originally published on June 14, 2018 11:54 am

There's a moment from nearly a decade ago that's still on loop in Laura Ogden's mind. When Laura plays back this mental video, she imagines an alternate ending. A happier ending.

There's a technical name for this kind of thinking: A counterfactual.

A counterfactual is a mental simulation where you think about something that happened, and then imagine an alternate ending.

Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the University of Minnesota, says we come up with counterfactuals all the time.

"If you drive home from work today, and you get into a car accident, that would be terrible," she says. "And you may start thinking about why that happened. If you took a new route home from work, one of the counterfactuals may be, 'Now if only I had stuck to my usual way of going home, this wouldn't have happened.'"

Northwestern University Professor Neal Roese says there's real value to wondering "if only."

"Counterfactual thoughts are generally useful for us in terms of providing a set of options that we might act upon in the future," he says. "And this can lead to improvement. It can lead to learning from experience."

But counterfactual thinking isn't always so constructive. Counterfactuals sometimes appear when they're not needed; they can also fail to appear when they would be most useful.

This week on Hidden Brain, we look at why some events prompt these "What if?" questions, while others do not.

This episode was produced by Rhaina Cohen and Parth Shah and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team also includes Jenny Schmidt, Thomas Lu and Laura Kwerel. You can follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM (HOST): This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. All of us are time travelers. We go back in history to turning points in our lives and imagine how things could have turned out differently. What would have happened if we had chosen a different path, swiped right instead of left, moved abroad or quit smoking?

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VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we look at the choices we wish we'd made and the ones we wish we hadn't. We'll tell you a story that shows when our minds reach for these alternate realities.

LAURA OGDEN (SKIER): I'm responsible because I didn't listen to him and what he was saying.

VEDANTAM: And we'll also look at other scenarios where we're less likely to ask, what if? It turns out the psychological forces that lead us to dream of alternate lives have profound effects on us and the planet.

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VEDANTAM: Laura Ogden has spent years imagining how things could have turned out differently. At the very start is a pair of skis. She and her friends would go out to the mountains in Washington state.

OGDEN: Going as fast as we can and going as steep as we can and starting to jump off rocks and challenge ourselves with our fear. I think that became something I was drawn to and I guess addicted to as time went on.

VEDANTAM: When she got to college...

OGDEN: The whole ski culture opened up to me so it snowballed - no pun intended - from there (laughter).

VEDANTAM: She moved from skiing resorts to wild slopes where it was just her, some friends and the elements. They'd haul themselves to the top of mountains with skis on their backs - no ski lifts, no ski patrol, no cozy lodge with hot chocolate. Laura began to enter skiing competitions. She met a professional skier named Jack Hannan. Laura says skiing with someone can lead to a deep connection.

OGDEN: It's like a landscape that can really conjure up a magic to it - awe-inspiring scenery. You get up into these mountains and to be sharing that with somebody, it just hits you deeply. And then sometimes it can be quite arduous, like getting up to the top of a big peak. So you go through that suffering together, for lack of a better word, and then get this massive reward of skiing. It is almost like out of - as an out-of-body experience in a way, like this smooth ease of flow going down. And you know that that person is having their own yet similar experience to you and that can understand that. And that having that shared excitement together - I mean, the rest is history (laughter).

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VEDANTAM: Laura and Jack got married in 2008. They bought a house on a big swath of land in the remote mountains of Canada. They planned to be homesteaders. And of course, they would ski. Life was good.

OGDEN: Going from day to day and not having too much to worry about besides where are you going to go skiing and is - are you going to have spaghetti for dinner or burritos? Because (laughter) simple life.

VEDANTAM: One day in March 2010, their friends Dave and Tessa Treadway invited them to go skiing on Mount Currie. Dave and Tessa were also professional skiers. Dave had been out that week and found that conditions were good, so Laura and Jack said yes. The friends loaded their gear onto a helicopter that would drop them off at the top of the mountain.

The pilot flew them to the top of Mount Currie. They had gotten a late start. Instead of the usual 6 or 7 a.m., they made it to the top of the mountain around 11. The four friends tested the conditions by pushing a giant block of snow down the mountain.

OGDEN: You're basically creating an avalanche ahead of you. So once you get on the snow to ski, it's much less likely that any avalanche underneath is going to happen again because all that snow underneath you is consolidated.

VEDANTAM: One by one, the friends began skiing.

OGDEN: Tessa and I were together, and then Jack had skied down to us. And then we were waiting for Dave to come down. We were kind of feeling like we were at the end of the more intense part and were feeling pretty good and were feeling like now it was time to go home, basically. I know it was about 2:30 in the afternoon. And I was kind of on the top of this shoulder. And I heard - suddenly, I heard Dave yelling, avalanche.

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OGDEN: One thing I think is hard to imagine is just how heavy and forceful a whole bunch of snow can actually be when it's coming down at 60 miles an hour. It's like a freight train.

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OGDEN: I just stood there frozen. I didn't have anywhere safe that I could hunker down like a, you know, a rock or a tree to kind of hide behind. So I knew that there was nothing that I could do.

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VEDANTAM: Laura was not in the direct path of the avalanche. When it passed, she was still standing. There were clouds of fog around her.

OGDEN: I yelled, Jack, and didn't hear anything. And then I yelled, Tessa. And she yelled back.

VEDANTAM: Dave called out that he was OK. But Jack...

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VEDANTAM: Laura and her friends took out their avalanche beacons. They knew that Jack's beacon would be broadcasting his location. If they picked up his signal, their devices would ping.

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VEDANTAM: Avalanche beacons are designed to ping faster if rescuers get closer to a missing skier. They're like metal detectors.

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VEDANTAM: Laura stared down the path of the avalanche. She and Dave took off down the mountain to find Jack, leaving Tessa as a lookout.

OGDEN: The avalanche was so big that it had taken most of the snowpack away, and suddenly we were forced to ski down this terrain that was gnarly, like, all right. I'm going to hop over this rock. And I'm going to slide down this ice - crazy how it was inconsequential, like it wasn't a big deal for me.

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OGDEN: I was way more focused on, we got to go get Jack, so let's do what needs to be done.

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OGDEN: The avalanche beacon was telling me that I was basically a meter away from Jack's avalanche transceiver.

VEDANTAM: But when she got to the spot, she could see nothing besides snow and ice and debris. She dropped to her knees. She got out her shovel and started to dig.

OGDEN: The snow was so frozen and packed together that I couldn't really move the snow that way. So I had my ice axe.

VEDANTAM: She hacked away at the snow pack.

OGDEN: And I quickly discovered Jack's, like - the jacket he was wearing - his shoulder. So he wasn't very deep under the snow when I found him.

VEDANTAM: She used her hands to claw away the snow. She needed to get to his face to get him air.

OGDEN: When I dug enough around his upper body and face, it started to dawn on me that he wasn't alive.

VEDANTAM: What do you do in the minutes after you come to such a realization?

OGDEN: What had just happened was not hitting me at all. I remember Tessa trying to talk to me. I was still on this version of autopilot.

VEDANTAM: There was work to be done. They dug out a flat platform for a rescue helicopter to land. When they made it back down the mountain, Laura gave a statement to a police officer.

OGDEN: I remember sitting in this little room with the RCMP officer and giving him details of what had happened, kind of like deadpan in a way, just stating the facts. And somehow I was able to describe to him how my husband had just been killed by an avalanche.

VEDANTAM: She kept it together until her best friend arrived.

OGDEN: That's just when I lost it. I just - I think I finally knew - or I don't really know. I just - I had let it all go.

VEDANTAM: But right as she started to break down, a voice in the back of her head reminded her of something that Jack had said that morning before they'd boarded the helicopter. They'd been sitting in their truck.

OGDEN: And Jack and I were by ourselves and looking at Mount Currie. And Jack said to me, you know, I have a bad feeling about today.

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VEDANTAM: This was unusual. Jack was not a worrier. And when he didn't feel safe, he wasn't ambivalent.

OGDEN: Jack's definitely been the one to say, I'm not into going out. I'm going to pull the plug. And he's adamant.

VEDANTAM: Laura asked him...

OGDEN: Well, if you have a bad feeling, do you think we should not go? And I don't think he wanted to be the one to say, no. Let's not go.

VEDANTAM: What did he say in response to you?

OGDEN: He was slow to respond, I remember, and said, well, no. We can still go.

VEDANTAM: Laura couldn't bear to tell her friend about it.

OGDEN: I felt really guilty. And, you know, I even have a little bit of shamefulness now admitting it that I am responsible because I didn't listen to him and what he was saying.

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OGDEN: You know, it almost adds to the tragedy of it. Like, Jack had this feeling and we went anyway.

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VEDANTAM: Over and over, she replayed what had happened and imagined how things could have turned out differently. Laura's regret and pain are completely understandable. Her reaction also reveals something important about how the mind works, how we process the past and how we think about the future.

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VEDANTAM: When we think back on our lives, our minds tend to focus on specific events. We might imagine how things could have unfolded differently. We don't realize it, but there are psychological triggers that bring about these fantasies.

OGDEN: Jack said to me...

VEDANTAM: Years after Jack died, Laura still thinks about that day on Mount Currie. It's a video that plays on endless loop in her mind. She keeps rewinding, pressing play.

OGDEN: I have a bad feeling about today. I have a bad feeling about today. I have a bad feeling today.

VEDANTAM: And then her mind changes the narrative so Jack doesn't die. There's a technical name for this type of alternate reality - a counterfactual. Kathleen Vohs studies how and why our minds produce these fantasies. She's a psychologist at the University of Minnesota.

KATHLEEN VOHS (UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA): A counterfactual is a mental simulation where you think about what did happen - so some event led to another event.

VEDANTAM: And then, you think of an alternate ending.

VOHS: For example, if you drive home from work today and you get into a car accident, that would be terrible and you may start thinking about why that happened. If you took a new route home from work, one of the counterfactuals may be, now, if only I had stuck to my usual way of going home, maybe this wouldn't have happened.

VEDANTAM: Laura's counterfactual looks like this. She and Jack sit in their truck looking up at Mount Currie. Jack says...

OGDEN: You know, I have a - I have a bad feeling about today.

VEDANTAM: And Laura says...

OGDEN: Well, then, I think we should listen to your bad feeling and trust that intuition and not go.

VEDANTAM: Jack lives. Laura's world remains intact. The reason Laura comes up with this alternate ending is because she wants it to be true. At the same time, she knows these thoughts aren't very useful. She can't bring her husband back. So why does her mind keep producing these thoughts? It turns out, there are specific elements to this story that invite counterfactual thinking. To understand what they are, meet Neil Rose.

NEAL ROESE (NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY): I'm a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

VEDANTAM: Neil has found four triggers for counterfactual thinking; one, a clearly bad outcome.

OGDEN: When I dug enough around his upper body and face, it started to dawn on me that he wasn't alive.

ROESE: Just seeing something negative or something that falls short of expectations, that tends to bring counterfactuals to mind.

VEDANTAM: Two, something happened that was out of the ordinary.

OGDEN: I had never heard Jack say this before, that he was like, you know, I have a bad feeling about today.

ROESE: The husband saying that he has a bad feeling about it, presumably, that's a rare occurrence, but it was significant on that moment. It becomes more significant after the fact, of course, but it's unusual. And so our thoughts, very naturally, gravitate toward that unusual aspect.

VEDANTAM: Three, you can see how you, yourself, or some other person played a central role in what happened.

OGDEN: I am responsible because I didn't listen to him and what he was saying.

VEDANTAM: Four, you can draw a direct connection between what someone did or didn't do and the negative thing that happened. Cause and effect are close together.

ROESE: We look at actions that are relatively close to a key outcome - in other words, maybe a few minutes before or even a few hours before but not years in the past.

VEDANTAM: So Laura doesn't rewind the tape so far back that she questions why she became a skier. As Kathleen Vohs points out, she rewinds the story to the conversation in the truck.

VOHS: There is a moment where they discussed doing something different. The counterfactual is just so salient for her story. And she, along with Jack, made a different decision and then here we are.

VEDANTAM: Counterfactuals don't exist just to drive us crazy. We engage in this kind of thinking for a reason.

ROESE: Counterfactual thoughts are generally useful for us in terms of providing a set of options that we might act upon in the future. And this can lead to improvement. It can lead to learning from experience.

VEDANTAM: When we go back and revisit a decision that turned out poorly, when we imagine how we could have made a different decision, it can be painful. But it can also be very useful. It can help us see how, if the same kind of situation rolls around again, we could do something different next time. There's a second reason counterfactuals are psychologically useful.

VOHS: When something bad happens, kind of shakes your confidence that you understand the world and you can predict what's going to happen. And so when people engage in counterfactuals and they simulate other alternate pathways - if I had done this differently then this negative thing may not have occurred - gives them some sense of control that they kind of understand the world more and that can help, in a psychological sense, be a very adaptive pattern.

VEDANTAM: This is all healthy. We turn bad things that happened into lessons for the future. And by imagining how we could have changed what happened, we get a feeling of control and agency. Counterfactuals become a driver of change, of action. Of course, this leads to the question, what happens when events do not set off counterfactual thinking? As Neil shows, there are specific features in a story that cause our minds to come up with alternate versions. Without those triggers, we don't engage in counterfactuals and without counterfactuals, we're often not inclined to change our behavior.

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VEDANTAM: This relationship between counterfactuals and behavior made me think about a conversation I had a few years back. And it brings us to a second scenario we want to explore today. I was visiting the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska. We did an episode about it some time ago. The glacier is a dazzling sight but it's also a bleak lesson in climate change. It's receded dramatically in a matter of decades. As I was standing at a viewing point, Terry Lambert, visiting from Southern California, came up beside me. We both stared at the wall of ice in the distance. I introduced myself.

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VEDANTAM: I wonder if I might talk with you for a moment. I'm a journalist. I work for NPR in Washington.

And asked him what he made of the glacier's retreat.

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TERRY LAMBERT: The glaciers - a lot of it gets replaced every year when it snows. It might be receding in but we're still going to have snow. We're still going to get some replaced. So I just think it's - I mean, as old as they are, they can't last forever. Yeah, it's receding faster, but what are you going to do?

VEDANTAM: What are you going to do? I thought back to that conversation with Terry in the context of Laura's story. Unlike Laura, Terry wasn't bothered by counterfactual thoughts. He didn't say, if only humans hadn't burned so much fossil fuel, maybe the glacier wouldn't have receded. He didn't say, what could I have done to head off climate change. Surveys have found that about half of all Americans don't worry that much about a warming planet. Psychologist Neal Roese and Kathleen Vohs think that our responses to challenges like climate change might be very different from our responses to a skiing accident because climate change doesn't have the four triggers that set off counterfactual thinking. Take what Terry told me, for instance. He didn't see what was happening to the glacier as something negative.

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LAMBERT: Even if it all melts, it's not going to be the end of the world.

VEDANTAM: There could be changes. Species could - some species could be advantaged, some species could be disadvantaged. The ecosystem is changing, you're going to have flooding, you could have weather events - right? There could be consequences that affect you and I.

LAMBERT: Yes. But like I said, it's so far the future, I'm not worried about it.

VEDANTAM: Two, counterfactuals are triggered when you can see something happen that's out of the ordinary. Terry doesn't see anything unusual about the receding glacier.

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LAMBERT: You know, everything goes around in circles - I guess. So, you know, it starts at one place and goes back to the beginning at some point. So not in my lifetime, but I'm sure at some point we'll probably another ice age.

VEDANTAM: Three, counterfactuals spring to mind when you can see how you, yourself, or some other person played a central role in what happened. In Terry's case...

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LAMBERT: I personally don't think it's something that man's doing that's making that melt.

VEDANTAM: And four, seeing a direct connection between an outcome and what someone did or didn't do tends to produce counterfactuals. Cause and effect need to be side by side. In the case of climate change, the causes are diffuse and distant and the worst effects have not yet happened. Obviously, even if you accept the reality of climate change, you can't lay the responsibility for it at the feet of any one person.

ROESE: The key difference between these two different stories is the immediacy of the negative outcome. It's something either very abrupt and very, very severe that happens to you at a particular moment versus something that unfolds more generally, more slowly and is not that much of a direct impact on your life. And so the difference between these two is that the first one will activate a lot of counterfactual thoughts focusing on your own action. The second one is just more diffuse and perhaps is going to be involved with a bit more fatalism. Just feeling like, well, this is the way things are and there's not much I can do.

VEDANTAM: If counterfactual thinking tends to lead us to act, an absence of counterfactual thinking can keep us from seeing what we can do.

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LAMBERT: Well, it's just like earthquakes and floods and hurricanes. They're just all part of what's going on. You can't control it. You can't change it.

VEDANTAM: The retreat of the Mendenhall Glacier is not in itself proof of climate change. But when scientists zoom out and look at all the data, that consensus is that climate change is happening and that its consequences are all around us. Human actions are tied to the problems that have already struck. Human inaction is directly implicated in the disasters that are to come.

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VEDANTAM: Kathleen Vohs says, from a psychological perspective, the difficulty in coming up with counterfactuals for climate change can easily produce apathy.

VOHS: We don't really know what kind of a role each and every one of us plays in all of that. And so it makes for - just a - psychologically a very kind of messy understanding of, who's responsible? What should we do? And it's very hard to understand the results or even know when they may come about. They may not even come about in our lifetimes, which makes it even more psychologically remote.

VEDANTAM: In Laura's case, she can see the one specific thing she could have done to prevent Jack's death. But...

VOHS: It's very hard to see a cause-and-effect relationship to, you know, throwing another soda can in the recycling bin and seeing the temperature of the oceans not rise nearly as fast.

VEDANTAM: Not all environmental problems are like climate change. Some do trigger counterfactual thinking. And these lead us to act. Terry Lambert wasn't worried about climate change. But when there was an environmental problem close to home, one that was wiping out a species of mollusks, he literally came to the rescue. He used to dive off the Anacapa Islands in California.

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LAMBERT: They were having a problem with the black abalone being extinct in some of it. And I did several dives and helped replace the abalone. We built habitats for them and put them in there. So the local environment - yeah, I've had my hands on it and, you know, you do what you can do.

VEDANTAM: You do what you can do. That's pretty much the opposite of what he said about the shrinking glacier.

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LAMBERT: Yeah. It's receding faster. But what are you going to do?

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VEDANTAM: It's telling that Terry felt compelled to do something about the local issue. He could see his role in the solution. This might be a hint at a way around the kinks in our counterfactual thinking. If unconscious rules keep us from thinking about counterfactuals when they could be useful, we might have to consciously choose to open the door to these thoughts.

ROESE: I think it's just a simple conversational style where you could just directly ask, what could you personally have done differently? How could you have made things better? How could you have performed a more positive action? And so I think it is a reasonable thing to bring up in a conversation.

VEDANTAM: Other times, we may need to talk ourselves out of engaging in counterfactuals.

VOHS: For Laura, it does make a great deal of sense that she's doing that. Although, of course, there's really no way that she has culpability or responsibility here.

OGDEN: My journey definitely continues. I definitely was taking less risk and skiing much more conservatively. But I still had such powerful connections with the mountains because that's where I connected with Jack.

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VEDANTAM: Like every useful feature in the brain, counterfactuals don't always spring to mind when they're needed. Sometimes they show up when they're not useful, and they produce unnecessary pain. Other times, they fail to appear, fostering apathy. Sometimes the path you wish you'd pursued is just a mirage. Other times, there was a turn you needed to take. All you had to do was see it.

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VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Rhaina Cohen and Parth Shah. It was edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Thomas Lu and Laura Kwerel. Our unsung hero this week is Carlos Chavez (ph) on NPR's IT apps team. A few weeks ago, we were trying to publish our podcast and the computer we were using crashed. Rebooting it didn't help. The software simply wouldn't mix down our episode. Carlos spent hours on the phone with us troubleshooting the problem and brainstorming solutions. When inanimate computer programs inexplicably stop working, having a human around to lend a sympathetic ear can make everything a lot easier. Thank you, Carlos.

Before we go, we're working on a story about what happens when our heroes tumble from their pedestals. Many of us have had the experience of seeing someone we respect or cherish doing something terrible or just boneheaded. If you have a personal story you are willing to share about how you felt when one of your heroes had a fall, please record your story on your phone and email it to us at hiddenbrain@npr.org. Please use the subject line heroes, and include your full name and phone number. Remember, we want to hear the story of what happened.

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VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.