Alternative Truths

The unexpected truths about judgment and decision making.

Limits in Human Imagination

Our capacity to imagine is miraculous--but limited.

One of the most striking differences between humans and other animals is our unique capacity to imagine being something, someone or somewhere else. In contrast, cats in pursuit are incapable of empathizing with pursued mice, dogs shivering in the northern winter are incapable of longing for next summer, and horses in confined paddocks are incapable of imagining the freedom of roaming wild.

For all its sophistication, though, our capacity to imagine alternative states is far from perfect. Even our deepest imaginings fall far short of complete immersion, and we're always left in psychological limbo somewhere between the present and a loosely sketched alternative.

There's plenty of evidence for these shortcomings in how we think and behave. Researcher George Loewenstein coined the term cold-to-hot empathy gap, which describes the difficulty of imagining what it's like to be in a hot state when you're currently in a cold state. For example, it's difficult to imagine what it's like to be famished (the hot state of being hungry) when you've just eaten a big meal (the cold state of not being hungry). Perhaps this example explains in part why wealthy, overfed people typically remain unmoved when asked to donate money and food to chronically underfed people half a world away; they're incapable of imagining the pain of chronic hunger because they're always full. Based on similar logic, dieters and financially deprived consumers are better off shopping for food after a big meal than when they're hungry--when you're full (a cold state), it's hard to imagine ever being hungry again (a hot state).

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Hunger isn't the only hot visceral state that we're incapable of imagining when we're in a comparatively cold state. Drug users, smokers, and alcoholics swear they'll remain clean when their cravings subside, but it's difficult to fulfill that promise when the cravings return. Physicians are also incapable of comprehending the severity of their patients' pain, and patients similarly underestimate how painful upcoming procedures will be until they arrive. Indeed, the majority of pregnant women who reject anesthesia in anticipation of childbirth ultimately reverse their decision when they go into labor. More recent research also suggests that certain psychological states are also difficult to imagine. Loran Nordgren and his colleagues found that people typically underestimated the pain of being bullied or socially excluded, and middle school teachers suggested that bullies should be punished more harshly when the teachers themselves had earlier experienced social exclusion. In other research, my colleagues and I recently found that people were unwilling to treat financially deprived criminals more leniently-unless they were first made to feel financially deprived themselves. Put simply, our capacity to imagine is miraculous, but it's also bounded by our inability to simulate the experience of being in hot states when we're presently occupying a comparatively cold state.

Adam Alter is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at New York University Stern School of Business.

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