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What-if thinking


Explanations > Thinking > What-if thinking

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



When thinking about the future, we often engage in games of 'what if...?', considering scenarios that could happen and what we might do about them.

A key variable is probability. We may think about likely scenarios, wish for things we would like, or fret about unlikely horrors. In this, our estimation of actual probability can be way out, driven by optimism, pessimism or other bias.

Scenarios considered are often about personal action, thinking 'What if I do this?' as a way to select the best action. We may also wonder about external events and how we might cope with threats and opportunities, including due to things that other people do, and natural issues such as weather extremes.


What if I could persuade Sy to go on a date with me? What if it all went horribly wrong?

A consultant plays devil's advocate in a business strategy meeting, asking 'what if' to keep her client's feet on the ground and highlight risks.


What-if thinking is natural and we all indulge in it. It is based in our ability to think about the future and can be very helpful when planning. It can be useful also in creativity, where fanciful 'what if' questions can spark innovative ideas.

What-if thinking can become dysfunctional when we obsess about it, constantly worrying about what might happen while forgetting to live today. We can also cause problems for ourselves if we become too hopeful about the future, working on the principle that just because we want something to happen it will happen.

So what?

Get people to think about things by asking 'What if...'. This can be used negatively, incoming fear, by highlighting risks. It can be used positively, invoking desire, by selling a vision. Make it an open and creative session. Nothing is forbidden and nothing will be criticized. Then when you have a range of possibilities, start thinking more evaluatively, thinning them down by asking 'what can we do' and 'what is probable or possible'.

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