Making Everyday Decisions Better With Thought Experiments

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Consider a very basic problem of the universe: “Why aren’t sheep green?” It would seem to make sense if sheep were better camouflaged they would not be eaten by wolves. You imagine a green sheep and a white sheep. The white sheep gets eaten and the green sheep does not. This kind of thinking is part of a thought experiment.

This is the kind of thought experiment that we do all the time to think about things. Some of them are more valuable than others. But they all help us generate new ideas and solutions when good data or green sheep are not around.

There are all kinds of thought experiments. There was the one where Einstein came up about riding light and seeing what would happen. Then, there is the ethics thought experiment about the trolly going towards five people or one person. Or the funny idea that an infinite number of monkeys could write Hamlet.

One way to do thought experiments

Putting some silly speculation aside, thought experiments do not only in appear science but can be useful in everyday life. The trick is not to think randomly about what would happen. There is a whole system to it.

The basic system is as follows:

  1. Ask yourself a question
  2. Do some research (or use Google or remember stuff)
  3. Make a hypothesis (or a guess)
  4. Test it with thought experiments
  5. Look at the outcomes and make conclusions
  6. Compare that to your guess and change accordingly

For example, You ask yourself “Why aren’t sheep green?” You Google about sheep and wolves. You notice wolves are not good at recognizing colors. So you run your experiment again.

In one case is the wolf that sees in color like humans. The other case is the wolf that confuses green with brown. If the wolf could not see green well then it would not matter. Both sheep would be dinner. Maybe the issue is with the wolf.

This is a slightly silly way of going about it, but hopefully, you get the idea. This also isn’t the only way to do it. In fact, there are seven different ways to think about thought experiments. Let’s look at what those are.

Type 1: Wondering how a future even would occur

question woman

In this type, you are wondering how X could happen in the future. You think of the possible things that would need to happen.

Suppose you wondered, what would it take so that your boss would not matter where you lived. You depending on your boss, it could be something short of a worldwide pandemic. But, you may consider technology changes, changes in company policy, the amount of trust you have with your boss, as well as a reliable record of producing good work.

In this example, it also helps to simulate in your mind what specific actions you would need to take. What would you say and at what timing? If you do things right, you could get exactly what you want. It is cases like this that make doing thought experiments fun.

Type 2: Considering a different case


In this type, you are considering an “alternate” history. We know that if X happens we get Y. But what if we did Z? Would we still get Y or something else?

For example, suppose you wanted to reconsider your spending habits. You got a raise this year. But what would happen if due to the economy or whatever that did not happen? How would your spending habits change? What would you have done differently?

In this case, you can think in your mind how you would react differently in the alternative scenario. Then you could use that as a guideline for actions in your current one. The point here is not to ruminate on all possible better or worse futures, but to use what could have happened as a guide for making decisions now.

Type 3: Considering different pasts / same future

Another interesting exercise is considering if different pasts would eventually come to the same future. This helps clarify what could possibly be the true cause of an event.

For example, we know that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. But, suppose Gavrilo Princip had an accident and couldn’t pull it off. Would things have been so different? There were plenty of people in Serbia not happy with Austro-Hungary.

Was the political situation that there was a high likelihood that Serbia and Austro-Hungary would go it and pull in everyone else in no matter what? This is an interesting question to think about.

Some things are just bound to happen. It is just a matter of getting the right circumstances to occur. A thought experiment like this lets you consider cases like this to those that are more influenced by individual events.

Type 4: Predicting based on data

Photo by Markus Spiske

In this case you have data X, the question then is based on that what is going to happen?

For example, you know that your sales went down 20% for the past couple of months due to a slow economy. You look at that and consider what is going to happen months or a year from now.

In this particular situation, you could probably draw a straight line or a curve based on the data you have. If you have a good model of your business, you probably could make a better prediction. In any case, a few numbers in a spreadsheet can help you create a couple of scenarios.

However, please note that no matter what mathematical model you use, it will not always reflect reality. Another mental model, “The map is not the territory,” points out that because we have to simplify concepts to make them easier to understand or predict, we will leave out things. Sometimes these things can be critical. So our best models are just really good guesses. They are not supposed to be accurate predictors of the future.

Type 5: Looking in hindsight

mirror monkey

Another interesting one is predicting X and then seeing if there is any Y that we could use to forecast X.

Suppose that again we have the situation that we are going to have a 20% decrease in our revenue. Is there any variable that could forewarn this situation in our business before it actually occurs? Do we need to look at the decrease in sales calls, or cancellations, or supply issues, etc?

Thinking this out could better help you determine what figures, etc. you really need to keep track of. Derisking your business is important and using this thought experiment is key to doing that.

Type 6: Moving back to the root cause

Photo by Markus Spiske

Next is simply moving back the causal chain. We know that X happened, so what was before that? Then what was before that? etc. This can be hard to find out in the real world. You sometimes have to play thought experiments in your head to figure it out.

For example, suppose you consider the case of Kodak Films. We have heard this case before, Kodak did not go with digital cameras and later went bankrupt. It is an interesting case because Fuji Film didn’t go bankrupt. Both made films for cameras, one went bankrupt the other did not.

The chain of reasoning is that Kodak Films was not willing to start pushing an untested technology against its main cash cow. But if you look at examples like Netflix or Apple, you see companies that are willing to “disrupt” themselves. So, I think we need to further consider the chain of reasoning. What made Kodak different from Netflix or Apple?

We could say, “True. Kodak was not willing to go after the digital camera because it would compete against their main business. But what made management want to avoid that when Netflix or Apple embraced it?” Thinking in this way you can consider if the problem was in the company culture or a problem of leadership, etc.

Doing thinking like this can show that problem was probably not unique to Kodak, and could have popped up anywhere. If only the circumstances were right.

Type 7: Considering causes of fictional futures

This is when we consider a specific future at a specific time frame and work backward on how to go from there to the present.

If we wanted to envision a world where a vast majority were telecommuting, then we need to consider what would the world look at a little bit before that. Which companies in which industries would be going mostly or fully online? In what order? Which ones would not? Why or why not?

It is pretty easy to imagine a future where most people are telecommuting, but very few people put out a roadmap to that future. So, thought experiments like this can be fun and useful. It can point out future roadblocks for creating the future. As well as a good test for seeing if the time frame is feasible.


Thought experiments can at first glance seem to be the domain of science. After all very famous scientists like Einstein and Feynman used them to come up with important concepts. However you can use them too.

You can use any of the 7 patterns mentioned to help you make better decisions in your personal life or at work. They are useful for normal people considering normal problems. It is just a matter of trying them out.

If you need more help with using any mental model in your business presentations please, let me know. I help people effectively use logic, psychology, and rhetoric to build powerful presentations. A good presentation can make or break a business. Just contact me on Twitter, Facebook, or the contact form here, if you need help.

Matthew Ownby

Previously worked at NASA, Cisco Japan, and other large IT Corporation. Spent more than 15 years training businessmen and women to be better presenters. Good enough at Japanese help native Japanese speakers win speaking contests. Was fortunate enough to give a TEDx Talk in Kyoto also in Japanese ;). Also aims to build the toughest communication contest ever. That will not only include being good at business presentation skills, but debate, meeting facilitation, negotiation, coaching, and more. Also runs an online communication dojo where the focus is on practical skill application not listening to a sage on a stage.

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