Did you imagine the thing being better?
You probably did. This was the main experiment in the studies conducted by Adam Mastroianni, a postdoc at Columbia Business School and author of the newsletter Experimental History. The results showed that to an almost absurd degree, we all respond to that prompt by imagining things being better.
In the study, the researchers asked people to do what you just did: imagine three ways that everyday things (phones, the economy, people’s lives, pets) could be different. Then they asked people to rank whether those changes would be better, the same, or worse than how that thing actually is. And for every single item, people imagined better things. They imagined that cars could fly and wouldn’t need gas. They imagined that their pets wouldn’t shed and wouldn’t poop on the carpet and would never die. Even abstract concepts like love, they imagined being better. “We asked, ‘How could happiness be different?’ and people were like, ‘Oh, there could be more of it,’” Mastroianni says. “They didn’t say, ‘Oh, there could be less of it.’ Or ‘Oh, it could be harder to get.’ They weren’t like, ‘Oh, like, love could be more fleeting.’ They were like, ‘No, love could be more plentiful. That’s how it could be different.’”
This effect was so strong that Mastroianni thought they had run the statistics incorrectly the first time around. They ran studies with new wording, studies with Polish people, studies in Mandarin, and every single time they got the same result.
Their results aren’t entirely explained by optimism bias either, the effect in psychology that shows that people tend to want to believe that things will work out. The people polled did not think that it was always certain, or even likely, that their imagined improvements to their cars and pets and bank accounts would come true. And yet, they imagined them anyway.
What does this have to do with the future? Well, we can’t create better tomorrows without first imagining what those are like. And it turns out, we’re doing that all the time, naturally. Humans seemed wired to think about how things could be better. Simply imagining better things isn’t enough. But it’s a start. And that’s a key aspect of hope—the ability to know that things are bad and still, innately, instinctually, always first be thinking about how things could be better.
At the same time, we cannot let this instinct get the better of us. There is a real danger in sitting back and allowing the desire for hope to get in the way of progress. Today, even though posts like Shepherd’s aren’t going viral, the spirit that generated them hasn’t gone away. And today, it’s become weaponized into something more sinister.
Instead of headlines and lists, we get our dose of positivity from something like this.
This is a Wells Fargo commercial. It’s beautifully produced, showing small businesses from around the United States—a bike shop, a pottery studio, a bowling alley, a food truck. Swelling voices echo their optimism for the future, telling the listener that now, today, they have hope. The video ends with white text that says WELCOME TO HOPE USA. The message is clear: This bank is helping us all move into a future full of possibility and opportunity. The commercial coincided with an initiative to invest in “small businesses as they emerge from the economic impact of the pandemic.” Come with us, they say, to Hope USA.