WITH THE COUNTRY on the verge of civil war in 1860, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a patriotic poem about Paul Revere, a little-known Massachusetts silversmith and minor hero of the Revolutionary War. “Paul Revere’s Ride” played fast and loose with the facts of the now famous 1775 events, but the narrative had the psychological effect the author intended. It got Americans wondering how history might have turned out differently without that heroic act—and how the country might never have come to exist. By focusing on the nation’s precarious origins, the poem bolstered nationalism at a time when it was sorely needed.
“What if” thinking is always a bit tricky. Too much focus on “what might have been” can mire us in regret and feelings of powerlessness or keep us from savoring our good fortune. But is it possible that a bit of such thinking might save us from complacency about our circumstances? Some scientists are beginning to think that imagining an alternative reality might have ironic and tonic effects. Indeed, it might be a practical tool for strengthening commitment to country, workplace and relationships.
One of the first studies to explore this effect looked at people’s satisfaction with their romantic partnerships. Social psychologist Minkyung Koo, then at the University of Virginia, and her colleagues asked individuals in committed relationships to write for 15 to 20 minutes about how they might have never met or gotten to know their partners. Others wrote the story of how their meeting really happened, and still more people wrote about a typical day’s activities or a friendship. After the exercise, the people who had imagined not knowing their partner displayed the biggest increase in relationship satisfaction. When Koo and her co-workers reported this phenomenon in 2008, they called it the George Bailey effect, after the protagonist in the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life who finds renewed appreciation for his life after seeing how past events would have played differently had he not been born.
More recently, Northwestern University psychological scientist Hal Ersner-Hershfield and his colleagues were interested in how, psychologically, the George Bailey effect might work. They were curious about the “near loss” experience—specifically the feelings of poignancy that occur when what we cherish disappears. When we feel we are losing something—that time is becoming scarce, for example—the bittersweet mix of happy and sad emotions can reinforce our appreciation of what we have. The scientists wondered whether the same phenomenon might explain why we feel more strongly about things when we imagine that they might never have come to exist in the first place. Here’s how they tested the idea in the lab.
The researchers had a group of American volunteers write “alternative universe” essays—stories about how the key events and players in early American history might have been completely different—no Paul Revere, no George Washington or Valley Forge, no signature by John Hancock. Others simply wrote down a brief history of the country’s origins—the version familiar to every American child. Then the scientists used a standard test to measure all the volunteers’ political attitudes, including patriotism.
Those who had reflected on an alternative history of the U.S. scored significantly higher on patriotism. That was clear, but the simple experiment raised many questions. How did “what if” thinking bolster nationalism? What was the chain of cognitive events in between? They suspected that poignancy was the mediator and ran another experiment to see. In this one, they had volunteers reimagine not their homeland but their company—to think of all the possible reasons why the company might not be the company it is today. Others simply wrote about the company’s history. The scientists measured several traits of the volunteers: in addition to their commitment to the organization, they measured feelings of poignancy on leaving the company and also their vision of the company’s future success.