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Ask Counterfactual Questions To Build Creative and Critical Thinking

In an interesting study, researchers posed syllogistic problems to four-year-olds to understand their ability to reason. Given the premises “pigs can fly” and “John is a pig,” many children had difficulty reaching the conclusion that “John can fly.” However, the researchers then prefaced the problem with “Let’s pretend that all pigs can fly…” This time around, the number of children who could correctly reach the right conclusion increased significantly. 

One possible explanation proposed by the researchers is that adding the prefix “let’s pretend that…” clarified that these propositions are for an imaginary world, allowing the children to switch their mindset to a pretend mode where anything is possible. Dropping the rules of the real world enabled them to correctly reason about the problem in the abstract.

Exploring Counterfactual Thinking

Counterfactual thinking is one of the most fundamental forms of musing in which we frequently engage. Whenever we examine alternate scenarios of what could have happened, typically triggered by asking “what if” or “if only…” questions, we use counterfactual thinking. For example, when someone wonders how things would have been different if they had gone to a different school, chosen a different career, or been born in a different time period, they are engaging in counterfactual thinking. 

As the example above showed, counterfactual reasoning can improve abstract reasoning and critical thinking.  However, that’s only one half of the benefit; depending on the structure of the counterfactual thought, creative thinking can improve, too.  

The structure of a counterfactual can either be additive or subtractive. An additive counterfactual is when a new element gets added to the situation (e.g. “If only I had an umbrella, I wouldn’t have gotten wet”), while a subtractive counterfactual is when an element gets subtracted from the situation (e.g. “If only it hadn’t rained today, I would not have gotten wet”). 

Additive counterfactual scenarios have been found to result in higher creativity. One possible reason is that additive counterfactuals introduce additional elements that didn’t exist in the previous situation, opening up new sets of ideas. They also likely leverage associative thinking in the process. In addition, simply priming people in the additive counterfactual mindset increased their performance in divergent thinking tasks as it put them in a more expansive processing style. 

Subtractive counterfactuals, on the other hand, improve analytical thinking abilities and rely on a more relational processing style characterized by making connections between the stimuli. These kinds of counterfactuals improve analytical reasoning abilities, but they also decrease creative divergent thinking. 

In addition to additive and subtractive dimensions, counterfactuals can also have an upward or downward direction. An upward direction is when the alternate scenario improves things compared to reality (e.g. “If only I had studied more, I would have gotten a better grade”) and a downward makes the alternate worse than the reality (e.g. “I am glad I went for the review session; otherwise I might have failed the test”). Because upward counterfactuals imagine a better future, they tend to elicit negative emotions like regret and disappointment, but they also work better in guiding future behavior. In downward counterfactuals the alternate situation is worse than reality, so they are accompanied by relief and surprise. On the other hand, they leave people less motivated to improve future performance. 

The structure of the counterfactual plays a strong role in cognition – both creative and critical. So which one is better in creative problem solving?

How Creative Problem Solving Benefits from Counterfactuals

Creativity involves coming up with ideas that are both novel and useful, and therefore uses both divergent and convergent thinking. Creative problem solving can therefore benefit from both kinds of counterfactuals. 

Given the advantages of counterfactual thinking, here are some ways to incorporate it in the classroom: 

• If you are reading a novel or a story in the class, you can ask counterfactuals by adding or removing an event or a character. By adding an element, you encourage students to make their own creative versions of the story, while removing an element helps them identify how that element shaped the story.

• Asking counterfactual questions while studying history can help deepen understanding of the subject. For example, subtractive counterfactuals like “What if the Boston Tea Party had never happened?” forces students to examine the impact of other factors and whether or not history would have progressed the same way. 

• When students are working on a creative problem solving project, use additive and subtractive counterfactuals in phases. In the early stages of creative problem solving where the focus is on generating novel ideas, using additive counterfactuals or just being placed in that mindset can significantly improve the creative output. Once the focus switches to evaluating different ideas and improving on one of the ideas, a subtractive counterfactual mindset can be helpful. 

• Upward counterfactuals can help students get better at planning and prioritizing. If a student fails to submit an assignment and misses free time, posing a question like “What could you have done differently to be able to play with your friends?” can put them in the upward counterfactual mindset (“If only I had written in my journal, I would have been able to play with my friends today”) and regulate future behavior. 

Asking counterfactuals can be a powerful way to improve behavior as well as cognitive thinking like creativity and analytical thinking. And because they don’t really cost anything, they are also easy to incorporate in the classroom. Once you have determined the learning goal (e.g. creative or critical), you can choose the right kind of counterfactual question to pose, and help your students improve their thinking.  

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