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Motivation

Why We Think Things Could Always Be Better

When asked how things could be different, we imagine how they could be better.

Key points

  • New research shows that when people are asked to imagine how things could be different, they tend to imagine how things could be better.
  • This finding does not depend on how the question is asked, and it generalizes beyond English-speaking American samples.
  • This tendency to imagine how things could be better rather than how they could be worse may explain why people never seem to be satisfied.

“The grass is always greener on the other side.”

“It’s all relative.”

“You get used to everything.”

There are many idioms in the English language to express the idea of hedonic adaptation. Put simply, no matter what we achieve, we never seem to be satisfied. We return to our “baseline” level of happiness, and we start to pursue new, even loftier goals. Finally bought that house? Maybe now you want a second one. Finally got that car? Maybe now you want a better one.

Psychologists have documented this phenomenon in several studies, but it has been hard to find an explanation for it. A recent study, however, might shed some light on this matter. In what might be the most entertaining original research paper I have ever read, Mastroianni and Ludwin-Peery showed that people, when they imagine how things could be different, tend to imagine how things could be better.

The authors started by asking a group of people what things they thought about often. These things became the stimuli that would be used in the following studies. The list generated by participants included things like “Amazon,” “cars,” “pets,” “coronavirus,” and “politics,” and they ranged from being generally pretty good (e.g., pets) to generally pretty bad (e.g., coronavirus).

In the next study, participants were asked to imagine ways in which each of those things could be different. Overwhelmingly, everyone listed ways in which those things could be better. For example, phones could be different if they were waterproof. YouTube could be different if there were no ads. Even if things were generally already pretty good, people came up with ways they could be better. One participant even said about pets, "It would be cool if they could talk.”

Of course, it is possible that people misinterpreted the question. Maybe they thought that the researchers wanted them to come up with suggestions for improvement. So, next, the researchers asked the question in a different way: “How can each of these things be worse or better?” The results were the same: People simply did not generate ways that things could be worse. The researchers went on to discover that this result generalized to different cultural groups (English speakers in Poland, and Mandarin speakers in China) and that the bias to imagine how things could be better was present even in people who were neurotic, depressed, and/or anxious.

How might this finding explain hedonic adaptation? Well, if you always focus on how something could be better, then you might not appreciate how great something is already. Gratitude has been shown to enhance well-being, probably because thinking about what you are grateful for forces you to imagine how things could be worse, which is not the default tendency. Although the finding that we always imagine positive counterfactuals is novel, it does square with previous research that shows that we tend to imagine that the future will be good, too.

Why would our brains evolve to imagine what could be as better than what is? Well, maybe those people who imagined how things could be better were more driven to change things for the better. And as much as never being satisfied with the status quo is bad for our mental health and happiness, it is definitely good for human progress.

Mastroianni and Ludwin-Peery’s paper is interesting, not just because the effect they uncovered was fascinating and robust. It is also written in a very engaging and humorous, albeit “unscientific” style. The paper is currently posted on a “pre-print” server, which means that it has not yet gone through a peer review process to be published in a scholarly journal.

The authors claim that they do not plan on submitting the paper to a journal, though, since (in their view) that would require them to make their writing blander and their message less clear. However, they are open to feedback from their peers, and the data is available for anyone to scrutinize. Therefore, this paper invites the reader to imagine how the dissemination of scientific research could be different – no paywalls, no stilted writing – and I, for one, can’t help but imagine how that new way of scientific publishing would be better.

References

Mastroianni, AM & Ludwin-Peery, EJ. (2022). Things could be better. https://psyarxiv.com/2uxwk

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