Writing Rough Drafts of Our Future
Imagining multiple versions of our future can prepare us to cope with it.
Posted Dec 15, 2017
In Jorge Borges’ short story “The Secret Miracle,” a Jewish writer in Nazi-occupied Prague is arrested and sentenced to death by firing squad for promoting Jewish culture and resisting the Anschluss. As his execution date approaches, Jaromir Hladik mentally constructs all the possible ways that the circumstances of his death may play out, reasoning that, since nothing ever happens exactly the way one imagines it will, conjuring the most “atrocious particulars” before his mind’s eye will prevent their occurrence. Rather than being comforted by these “simulacrums,” however, Hladik’s mental experience of them is so vividly real that he begins to fear that, instead of forestalling the dreaded details, his imagination will actually be “prophetic” and make them come to pass.
A growing body of research on episodic simulation, or “the construction of a detailed representation of a hypothetical personal future experience,” has demonstrated the tendency of repetitive future thinking such as Hladik engages in to increase the perceived plausibility that an imagined event will actually occur. This tendency has obvious implications for emotional disorders such as anxiety in which fears over negative future events are seemingly confirmed through repeated mental simulations of futures in which those events come to pass (much as Hladik’s simulations of the worst possible variations on his pending death cause him to fear that they will occur exactly as he imagines they will).
Of course, if imagining negative future events can cause or intensify anxiety by making them seem plausible, it seems only logical that imagining positive future events could have the opposite effect. Several recent studies have explored just this possibility, examining the potentially adaptive function of positive rather than negative repetitive episodic simulations.
One such recent study at Harvard explored the emotional impact of having participants generate alternative positive outcomes to negative events. Over the course of two experiments, participants were presented with a hypothetical negative event (e.g. receiving a bad grade on an exam) and then given five minutes to generate as many alternative versions of the event as they could. While they were given a good deal of flexibility in the types of variations they could generate, they were instructed that each of the alternative scenarios must be more positive than the original negative event.
Following the alternative event generation phase, participants rated their perception of the plausibility and negativity of the original negative future events in relation to their perception of these same parameters before they spent time generating alternative scenarios. Not surprisingly, participants reported a decrease in the perceived negativity of the original event, but they also reported a decrease in their perception of its plausibility. The negative event actually seemed less likely to occur than it had seemed before alternative event generation.
As a gauge of the degree to which episodic memory processes are involved in the generation of alternative event outcomes, prior to the generation phase half of the participants were administered an episodic specificity induction, “brief training in recollecting details of a recent experience.” Commonly administered to eyewitnesses as a way of increasing recall of episodic detail, episodic specificity induction involves encouraging participants to focus on specific details of a past experience, such as a video, before giving testimony about the events that they witnessed. The specificity induction “selectively biases participants to focus on specific event details during subsequent tasks that are dependent on episodic memory,” which allows them to construct “more detailed scenes or events" than they otherwise would.
Even though the alternative event generation study at Harvard involved imagining future events rather remembering past ones, participants who were given an episodic specificity induction generated a substantially larger number of alternative event outcomes than the control group. Significantly, an increase in the generation of positive alternative event outcomes was associated with a decrease in both the perceived plausibility and the perceived negativity of the original events. By increasing the ease with which participants generated alternative positive outcomes to negative events, episodic specificity induction appears, at least indirectly, to have allowed them to view these events as less negative, and less inevitable, than they did before the induction.
While we may have only so much control over the events that our futures actually bring—such a Jaromir Hladik’s inexorable sentence of death—the way in which we imagine these events transpiring can predispose us to view them either fearfully or favorably. Imagining positive alternative outcomes to negative events in our future may not prevent these events from occurring, but it can prevent us from wasting valuable time in the present dreading their arrival.
Jing, H. G., K. Madore, and D. Schacter. “Preparing for What Might Happen: An Episodic Specificity Induction Impacts the Generation of Alternative Future Events.” Cognition (2017), 169: 118-28.