Thought experiments can help us uncover integrity gaps, if they exist, between what we wish our values to be and how we actually show up in the world. Here’s an example.
Say you’re a physician. You recognize there’s much to be done to improve the quality of health care in America, and you view the causes as factors beyond your control–restrictive payer requirements, onerous paperwork, litigious patients, and more. You believe you’re doing the best you can–you work long hours serving your patients, then go home for some sleep before returning to serve more patients the next day.
And yet, what we do know is that physicians at times, in the words of Robert Pearl, M.D., former CEO of Kaiser Permanente and author of Uncaring: How the Culture of Medicine Kills Doctors and Patients, “order unnecessary tests, overprescribe medications, and perform risky surgeries when less-expensive approaches would be just as valuable.”
Pearl suggests that physicians do a thought experiment whenever they treat a patient: “What if this patient were my parent, sibling, or child? Would I want to treat them this way?” What might this inquiry do to the level of care and thoughtfulness you brought to your medical advice and your communications?
If you’re not a physician, you can adapt the same thought experiment to your own circumstances to help you engage with people, day to day, from a place of deep care and thoughtfulness.
The irony is that sometimes the very people we love deeply are the ones in whose presence we are distracted and self-centered because we take their presence for granted in our lives. This has led me to create a powerful thought experiment to motivate myself to honor a loved one’s presence. I visualize one day in the future when I am with them in this distracted, half-in and half-out state, and then we part company to do our own thing for a while, expecting to meet again a bit later. But that moment never arrives, because this loved one dies before I can see them next. Sadly so, this isn’t a hypothetical situation for some people – over the years, many of my students have shared how they unexpectedly lost a loved one and regretted having not given them the time or attention in the days prior. It would be devastating, upon the passing of a loved one, to realize that we squandered away in a disengaged manner the very precious final moments we were to have with them. When I do this visualization, it helps me to bring more mindfulness into my interactions with loved ones.
Research shows that when we have power over others, there’s a tendency for many of us to be markedly less empathetic. In such situations, here is a valuable thought experiment we can try to stay grounded. Ask yourself, when you are interacting with a direct report or someone who is serving you, “If I were in their shoes, and they were in mine, is this how I would like them to treat me?” A simple thought experiment, role reversal, can do a lot to help us approach our interactions from a more caring, thoughtful place.
Think of an individual who deeply inspires you, who you admire, and who you’d love to have as a friend and a guide. This may be someone known to you, or not; living, or dead. Anytime you want to make sure you’re being your best self, conduct a thought experiment. Visualize that you are in the presence of this individual – they are watching over your every thought, speech, and action in that moment. They are cheering you on because they see the purity of your heart and the goodness of your character. How would you want to act, in their presence? This thought experiment, done well, won’t just give you the insight into how to act, it will also give you a surge of motivation to act that way.
Once we lost a dearly loved faculty member at Columbia. She was admired and adored by all. A get-together was organized for colleagues to come together and share stories about her, as well as their feelings on her passing. It was very beautiful and yet infused with grief. When it was my turn to speak, I asked everyone to close their eyes and do a visualization with me. I asked my colleagues to visualize that her spirit was still in the room with us, though she was not in a position to speak to us with a human voice. I asked them to imagine what it is she would want from us. She would certainly want us to honor her life, to feel a great sense of loss, and to appreciate her qualities. And she would want us to move forward in accepting her loss, to perhaps practice some of the values that were dear to her, to be our best selves, and live a worthy life.
Later, a friend shared another thought experiment with me. “Imagine, after you die, you meet with this dear one you lost today, and she asks you, “Tell me about the way you lived your life, from the time I left you.” How can you live your life so that when that conversation happens, you’ll be happy and comfortable with everything you share with her?”
Within each of us is an inner lab, where we can run through experiments, gather and analyze data on what feelings are triggered, and draw conclusions about our nature. On occasion, let your imagination take flight. Construct a thought experiment, and observe the feelings, thoughts, and behavior that start to arise in you. Use these observations to grow in your wisdom about yourself and the world.
This article was originally published in Psychology Today.