- To make better decisions, ask “how” you made past decisions (whether good or bad).
- The opportunity cost of a decision is the value you’re losing out on by not making a different decision instead.
- A counterfactual is a “what if?” question about the potential consequences of different decisions.
Two of the most important skills we can develop are learning how to think and how to make decisions. Much of life boils down to what decisions we make and why, and so improving our ability to think about making decisions can affect everything else we do.
In this article, we’re talking about one powerful tool for clearer thinking when it comes to decision-making: counterfactuals.
A Brief Aside—To learn from your past, ask how you made decisions
Since we’re talking about making decisions…
I learned from Safi Bahcall that it’s very powerful to ask how you make prior good or bad decisions, rather than focusing too much on the decision itself. The example that Safi uses is chess. Let’s say you lose a game, and you think that the loss was because of one bad move towards the end—maybe you moved your queen into a trap and it got taken. Instead of focusing on the specific move (moving the queen into the trap), ask how you came to the decision to move the queen to that position. By asking “how?”, you can uncover your current patterns of thinking and improve them. By improving how you think, you’ll make better decisions in many other situations: not just “queen trap” situations.
Let’s try this out really quickly.
Pick one particularly good or bad decision you’ve made in the last year—maybe you developed a new habit of working out daily. How did you make the decision to start working out daily? Was it a conscious choice with a plan, or did your friend convince you to go with them? In the former case, you might see that you have a process that can help you build more good habits. In the latter case, you might realize that it wasn’t your doing at all, but the influence of your environment. In each case, you can learn more about how you made that decision and what it means for future decisions you’ll make.
Perhaps something going wrong in your life wasn’t your fault, and you made all of the decisions correctly. Perhaps something going right in your life was actually a matter of luck, and the decision you made wasn’t the best. Analyzing the “how” can help you understand.
Alright, let’s get back to the main point.
Part One—Opportunity Cost
The main question here is, “If I didn’t do this thing, what else could I do instead?”
Let’s say you have to make a decision, such as whether or not you want to play in your local community soccer league. You might frame the question like this: “Do I want to play in the league, or not?”
But there’s a very big, hidden, loaded word in that question… “not”.
Playing in the league looks pretty straightforward, and you can pretty much guess the results. You’ll play some soccer a few nights a week, make some new friends, get some exercise, etc.
But not playing in the league…well, that could look like literally anything else. There are an infinite number of things that not playing the league could be.
For example, you could use that same time to join a tennis league. Or, you could use that time to start a business, or write a novel. You could watch TV during all of that time. You could build wooden birdhouses. You could study for law school.
All of these are ways that you could spend your time if you didn’t join the soccer league. Choosing to play in the league means choosing to not do any of those other things. You’re saying “yes” to one thing, and no to everything else.
That’s part one of counterfactuals: realizing all of the other things you could be doing with your time. All the things you could be doing instead are together called the opportunity cost. It basically means all of the stuff you’re missing out on. (FOMO times infinity.)
Next time you’re considering spending money or—more importantly—time on something, make sure to think about what you could do with that money or time instead.
The main questions here is, “What would happen if this thing didn’t happen, or hadn’t happened?”
This question is more directly in line with what people mean when they say “counterfactual”, and it refers to imagining how the world might look now if a particular event hadn’t happened in the past, or similarly how the world might look in the future if a particular event weren’t going to happen in the present.
When we choose to do something, we’re choosing not to do the infinite number of other things we could have done. When something happens, everything else that might’ve happened doesn’t.
So what would’ve happened if we had chosen to do something else? What would’ve happened if one of those other infinite things had happened?
Enough talking in the abstract—let’s get concrete.
Counterfactuals in the Past: Animal Liberation
We’re going to stay away from the Hitler counterfactual, because many others have fought about that and there’s much you can read on it. We’ll turn to something more directly related to animal rights, because it’s more interesting and useful for us.
Let’s look at the publication and popularization of the book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, the work that some people say set off the modern animal rights movement. Whether or not that’s true, it was at the very least quite influential.
What would have happened if Peter Singer had never written or published it?
The first option is that someone else would have written a similar book that would have had a similar impact. Perhaps it wasn’t the unique skills of Peter Singer that helped stir up the modern movement for animals, but just the fact that someone wrote a clear argument for animal rights in a time and place when there was already a little momentum in that direction. After all, Donald Watson and others had already founded The Vegan Society back in 1944, thirty-one years before Singer’s book. Ruth Harrison published an impactful book called Animal Machines in 1964 which documented the brutality of factory farms, and in 1965 Brigid Brophy published an article titled “The Rights of Animals”. In fact, Peter Singer himself wrote a review for a 1970 book called Animals, Men, and Morals which he said was “a manifesto for the Animal Liberation movement.” Perhaps the time was simply ripe for another reawakening of the movement for animals, and Peter Singer happens to be remembered as one of the main catalysts.
Another option is that the movement would actually have suffered a major hit without the publication of Animal Liberation. Maybe no one else would have done as good of a job as Singer, or perhaps his position and privilege as a white male philosopher helped with the spread and acclaim of the book in ways that others wouldn’t have had the benefit of. Perhaps Ingrid Newkirk wouldn’t have founded PETA without reading Singer’s book, and perhaps without PETA a whole collection of other individuals would have never gotten involved in animal rights, and many other organizations wouldn’t exist.
Let’s now hypothesize about another scenario, and one that might seem counterintuitive to you (but is maybe one of the most important counterfactuals to think about). What if Peter Singer’s book actually set the animal rights movement up for a series of long, difficult decades in which very little progress was made compared to what could have been? We all know that the number of animals killed for food has only gone up, and up, and up over the last 40 years. What if Animal Liberation inspired 40 years of ineffective activism, work that didn’t really end up doing any good for animals? What if, without the publication of the book, someone else’s book would have set the foundation for a completely different kind of animal rights movement, one that by now would have already achieved legal personhood for animals and the abolition of eating meat?
Although it might be hard to imagine, it could be the case that the efforts of well-intentioned people end up having a negative effect in the long run. Not only do we need to ask this difficult question about the work of others, in order to learn, but we also need to ask it about ourselves, in order to choose better paths forward. If we ask, “How might this actually harm more animals in the long run?”, then our answers will hopefully help us refine our strategy and end up with a better plan that mitigates those risks.
With counterfactuals, you have to be ready to hypothesize anything—especially the answers that you might not want to hear. Only through a careful consideration of alternatives can you select a path going forward.
Working through this process doesn’t mean that you need to consider each alternative as equally likely—some outcomes are surely going to be much more likely than others. (If Peter Singer hadn’t published Animal Liberation, perhaps all vegans and vegetarians would have vanished off the face of the earth over the next 40 years. But probably not.) It’s the consideration of the other outcomes that is the important aspect here, and the sincere effort to understand how the world might look if other decisions had been (or will be) taken.
Let’s jump back to the present and look at some very real decisions we have to make today when advocating for animals.
Counterfactuals in the Present: China
If you’re reading this, you’re probably an animal advocate. You probably also don’t live in China.
But why don’t you? Over 50% of the animals killed for food are killed in China (mostly fish), while only 2% are in the US, with similarly low percentages for most other Western countries. If you want to do the most good in the world, and you’re currently not living in China, it probably makes sense to imagine the counterfactual of living in China.
You may very well still come to the conclusion that it doesn’t make sense for you to live in China, for some good reasons: you aren’t native to China; you don’t speak the language; free speech and activism are more restricted; you have a job in the US; the internet allows you to work internationally in certain ways no matter where you live; etc. But, if you aren’t simply rationalizing your current choices—in other words, making up seemingly logical, palatable reasons for something when the true reasons are much different and perhaps not logically defensible—then you might also see a lot of good evidence for moving to China. Perhaps in your current life trajectory, you can impact X animals, and if you moved to China you could impact 100X. It’s a possibility—and that’s the value of the counterfactual, to help you consider that possibility.
(Here are two ways to flip these questions around and consider different angles of the counterfactual: What wouldn’t happen if I moved to China that is (or could be) happening right now? What isn’t happening right now that could be if I moved?)
Counterfactuals in the Present: Chickens and Fish
Let’s look at one more example, one that has actually drawn a lot of attention in the last decade or so of the movement.
For many years, a lot of animal advocacy focused on helping animals who humans more easily feel moral responsibility toward: cows, pigs, dogs, chimps, elephants, foxes, etc. During that time period, and perhaps unknown to most activists at the time, the consumption of chickens and fish increased significantly. Today there are many more animals killed for food each year than several decades ago—and the vast majority of them are chickens and fish.
Let’s look at some data.
First, notice how tonnes of “Poultry” meat on the bottom has grown quickly (by a multiple of more than 10), while the other categories haven’t seen the same growth.
And once we look at the number of land animals being killed (the above is weight), the picture is even more bleak. Chickens don’t weigh very much compared to cows and pigs, which means that equal weights of chicken flesh and cow flesh mean very different numbers of chickens and cows killed.
The graph for farmed fish looks similar. (And wild caught fish numbers have increased over this time period as well.) Fish, too, are much smaller on average than cows and pigs, which translates to a massive number of them being killed.
Is this how the course of history had to go to lead us to the present? Or is there another way?
Imagine, for example, that the animal rights movement had started by looking at the greatest numbers of animals killed, realized it was mostly fish, and then chickens, and advocated from that perspective. Is it possible that we could have prevented the meteoric rise in numbers of animals killed? Could we have stopped literally trillions of fish from being killed by humans, and billions of chickens from being born into factory farms? Perhaps by starting with chickens and fish, we could have more quickly expanded humanity’s moral circle to include individuals who humans don’t currently have much empathy toward.
Maybe. But maybe not.
We could imagine a scenario in which the animal rights movement did start with chicken and fish advocacy, but where those efforts had almost no effect on society because of humanity’s current lack of empathy toward them. What if others didn’t start joining the movement because they didn’t understand why we should care about chickens and fish? What if the vibrant ecosystem of organizations and activists that exists today never developed because it was harder for people to relate to the asks being made?
It could be the case that on the journey to expand humanity’s moral circle, it’s better to focus on the easier areas and then push on to the harder ones incrementally. It could also be the case that it’s better to target the furthest reasonable point and push for that, in the hopes that acceleration will be faster if people know where they’re going.
How you decide to answer these kinds of questions also probably determines how you assess counterfactuals. If you think we expand humanity’s moral circle one step at a time, then perhaps the world couldn’t be drastically better by advocating for fish and chickens earlier on. If you think we can push multiple steps at a time, then maybe you think the world would be much better off if we had advocated for them earlier. Perhaps you think neither option is optimal, and that a different approach (such as educating the population on speciesism) would have been the best path.
Using Counterfactuals to Make Progress
How do we make progress on these huge questions that involve the entire global infrastructure of modern society? This is a topic for another post (or 1,000 posts), but in short I think we can turn to these three strategies for the time being:
- Looking to past movements; studying the structure of modern society and creating models of it; immersing ourselves in the existing knowledge about relevant fields such as psychology, sociology, economics, and law; looking at and attempting to reason about the potential impact of current advocacy tactics; and running our own experiments.
- Using tools like counterfactuals to hone our reasoning; fostering constructive debate and disagreement between thoughtful individuals; seeking diverse sources of information and ideas; and having a toolbox of questions that help to diagnose potential logical flaws.
- Learning what differentiates good and bad experiments; committing to pursuing promising ideas for extended periods of time; helping others commit to pursuing other promising ideas; and sharing results and information with other advocates.
The combination of these three strategies can help provide a direction even in the face of astronomical uncertainty—and asking “what if?” is a big part of the process.
Counterfactuals are important because they force us to imagine more possible scenarios than we might at first. By asking “what if?”, we can make better decisions by having a more full picture of the possibilities.
A good counterfactual analysis will include both (a) what could happen in the future if a different decision were made in the present, and (b) what won’t happen in the future if you stop doing what you’re doing now.
Similarly, if we’re considering the past, we might ask: How might history have gone differently if a different decision were made?
But at the end of the day, a counterfactual is simply asking: what if?
There are a lot of great websites out there for learning how to make better decisions, how to avoid common human biases, and how to think more rationally. Here are some of my favorites.
- Conceptually – 52 Concepts to Add to your Cognitive Toolkit
- Including the article about Counterfactuals.
- Wikipedia – Counterfactual thinking
- It’s fun to Wikipedia hop around various concepts. Great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
- Cognitive bias cheat sheet (Because thinking is hard)
- This cheat sheet is epic. If you haven’t seen it, click that link now. Someone made flash cards out of these, too.
- Clearer Thinking – Free Courses for Decision Making and Reasoning