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"Groundhog Day" and the Benefits of Counterfactuals

Can we ever truly know what might have been?

Key points

  • We might all become exceptional decision makers if we could observe exactly how counterfactuals would play out in our lives.
  • Given that we can’t observe counterfactuals in real life, we must look for approximations: related evidence and "what if" questions.

In the 1993 film Groundhog Day, Phil Connors lives through the same day again and again and again and again…for years. After an initial shock, he realizes that this is a great oppportunity for experimenting with different ideas. He is able to vary his actions, observe how they affect the outcomes, and refine his decisions. He takes advantage of the situation as he attempts to get rich, save someone’s life, and win with the woman he likes.

In fact, we would all be exceptional decision-makers if we could somehow observe counterfactuals—that is, what would have happened had we chosen a different option in the same situation.

Given that we can’t, what can we do instead?

Lee Yiu Tung/Shutterstock
Source: Lee Yiu Tung/Shutterstock

Approaches to Counterfactual Analysis

Unless we had a time machine, or a curse like Phil’s, we would not be able to observe the true counterfactuals to our decisions. So, we must look for some valuable approximations instead.

For instance, we can try to envision alternative scenarios by looking for evidence based on decisions and results of others in similar situations. What happened to them when they acted in a certain way? What happened to similar people who didn’t act in that way?

Of course, it’s unlikely that a situation would exactly be like ours. But such an exploration would help us understand better the range of possible outcomes we face, especially if this is a one-off, irreversible decision.

As for repeated decisions, we can try to design simple experiments when we can. This would involve changing a detail in our decision process and comparing the results with a control setup, where we didn’t make that change.

If none of these are possible, we’ll have to engage in counterfactual thinking. This requires some imaginative what-if questions:

  • What would be the effect, were the supposed cause absent?
  • Would a certain outcome happen all the time if we made a certain decision? If not, how frequently?
  • What if we did things slightly differently? How would the outcome change?

What If We Could Observe Counterfactuals?

Other than Phil Connors, no one can claim to observe what would have happened had they made a different decision in the past. But the film Groundhog Day makes a curious prediction about how such an impossible ability would change us: Reliving the same day for years leads Phil to gradually become more generous and pleasant. Hence, the film argues, if we knew more about the various possible consequences of our decisions and had more information about everything around us, we would strive to be more decent.

Is this true? We leave that judgment to you.

More from Emre Soyer, Ph.D., and Robin M. Hogarth, Ph.D.
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