Weston Hadlock and Dr. Katie Liljenquist, Department of Organizational Leadership and Strategy
The initial goal of this study was to explore the different effects of counter-factual thinking on one’s assignment of meaning to life. The creation of these ‘what-if’ scenarios for many people has often been associated with regret. We, however, hypothesized that constructing these mental alternatives may instead lead to the perception that the path life took was meaningful because the contrast underscores the opportunities, relationships, and achievements that would not have occurred without these key elements in one’s life narrative.
We incorporated a standard methodological approach for university students in order to obtain close to our desired sample size. One sample group contained under graduate students attending Brigham Young University (N=141), while the other contained 2nd year MBA and MPA students also attending the same university (N=70).
For the undergraduate group, there were three possible conditions to which respondents could be randomly assigned. Respondents in each of these conditions were presented with a scenario (likelihood of selecting BYU as college to attend among other universities) of low probability (BYU vs all universities in United States), medium probability (BYU vs all universities in Utah) or high probability (BYU vs all universities in Utah County. The dependent variable to be measured was the sense of meaning or belief in fate that one assigned to life after being introduced to such odds.
Unfortunately, our hypothesis was not confirmed. We had anticipated less likely odds would in fact induce a greater sense of meaning to life, for respondents in comparison to those in the more likely odds group; however, neither experimental condition nor estimated odds had an effect on participants’ sense of meaning or belief in fate.
The second experimental condition for 2nd year MBA and MPA students contained two conditions, rather than three, with a similar scenario to the first condition being presented. Students were randomly assigned to a low probability condition or a high probability condition. In the low probability condition respondents were asked to participate in a scenario in which they were presented with the odds of selecting BYU’s MBA or MPA program vs all other MBA or MPA programs in the United States. The high probability condition was a similar scenario but presented the probability of selecting BYU vs all other MBA or MPA programs in Utah. Once again, the dependent variable was the sense of meaning or belief in fate that respondents assigned to life.
For this second group, results were slightly more promising than the first. Although the results were no ideal, participants who had considered their choice in light of nation-wide alternatives (i.e., the low probability statistical odds condition) were more likely to embrace a belief in fate, indicate that their graduate program choice was meant to be, and express more life satisfaction.
We think one of the reasons this study didn’t yield as strong of results as was expected was because of the subject matter of the dependent variable, and the sample from which experimented. Many under graduate students attending BYU are here purely as a choice of their own, but there are also many students whose decisions are heavily influenced by family, or other extraneous variables. That said, when assigning meaning to life based upon odds presented, for the under graduate group, it was likely difficult to believe fate had a large part in their decision to attend, when it was expected of them to attend their by parents or other pressures.
This is also evidenced by the fact that when moving away from the younger crowd, into the graduate students, results became more convincing. The MBA and MPA students decision to attend BYU was likely due to more personal decisions than those of the under graduate students.
Because graduate student populations are far less numerous and are often more difficult to access for sample purposes than under graduates, there is another change that could be made the methodology of this study that yield more statistically significant findings. The topic of counterfactual thinking can literally be applied to any decision made in life, and therefore has endless breadth to the scope of possible directions a study like this can take. As such, there may be instances in young under graduate’s lives that may be more meaningful than their decision to attend the BYU. If we could have honed in on a time or scenario that played more into the values of that particular age group, we believe the results would have been similar to those of the MBA and MPA group.
Overall the study was a success regardless of the results not matching our hypothesis. We better understand the methodology we incorporated and have plans to start another study with similar interest in the near future, but will take into account all the issues presented above. We thoroughly believe that individuals do not have to find regret in life by merely thinking about situations in a different light or by mentally altering the outcomes of the decisions made in the past. This attempt to understand how people assign meaning to life, and help people further understand how unlikely in is that their life just happened to end up the way it did, is more than anything, an attempt to bring greater happiness or peace into individual’s lives. By helping people understand just how statistically improbable it is that they are where they are today, maybe we can improve the mental health of us all.