By thinking of what something Could Be instead of what something Is, conditional thinking reveals new possibilities.
Look at the image above and say the words to yourself: “This could be a rubber band.” By using a conditional description of the object – employing conditional thinking – we open a channel of awareness in our minds:
If this “could be” one thing, then it could be other things as well.
Harvard psychologists Ellen J. Langer and Alison I. Piper performed a series of experiments to explore the difference a “single linguistic variation” (“This Could”) might have on people’s perception of objects.
In one experiment, participants were divided into two groups. In the first group, each participant was given a rubber band and told:
Each member of the second group was also given a rubber band. In this group, however, each person was told:
Both groups were then told they had to perform a task that required an eraser, but none were available.
Of the group that were introduced to the rubber band with an absolute statement (This Is):
3% realized a rubber band could also be used as an eraser.
Of the group that were introduced to the rubber hand with a conditional statement (This Could):
40% realized a rubber hand could be used as an eraser.
As Langer and Piper summarize, by using the conditional introduction This Could be instead of the absolute term This Is:
“A different need was then generated for which the object in question was not explicitly suited but could fulfill.”
“Introducing people to a new part of their world in this conditional manner resulted in more mindful use of that information,” summarize Langer and Piper. Participants “were able to use the unfamiliar object creatively when the need arose. Subjects who made premature cognitive commitments to the information because of the absolute way in which it was initially presented apparently were not able to meet this need.”
The study shows the impact alternate phrasings can have on our perception of reality. “This is” imposed a rigid framework of use upon the students. “This could” released students—and their perceptions—from the object’s fixed identity and use and freed them to think of other uses for the rubber band.