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Cognitive Agility Isn’t Found at the Extremes.

Feb 28, 2023

Taken together, all the recent hot takes on the future of generative AI tools reveal (once again) an enduring truth about how most of us, most of the time, envision futures: We tend toward the extremes. Utopias and dystopias. Futures where everything has changed and futures where somehow, shockingly, little has.

Again and again, we see this pattern: Generative AI will supercharge creativity, innovation, and problem-solving, or it will lead to a total collapse of trust in the information ecosystem. Covid-19 would either be an annihilating contagion, or it would somehow prove to be a “hoax.” The set of more ambiguous, more deeply contingent possibilities in the messy middle (that gray area that futurists define as the syntopian) is harder to visualize. But the mid-range often contains the more likely and is the most useful for understanding levers of change.

Catastrophizing, our gift for jumping to and fixating on worst-case scenarios in uncertain times, is a significant predictor of poor resilience. Utopian, best-case scenario thinking can undermine resilience differently by leaving us unprepared and at a loss when things inevitably don’t go according to plan or consistently toward a preferred outcome. Dwelling at either extreme in our imagination of the future limits cognitive agility (which depends on envisioning and moving between possible alternative paths) and our ability to embrace a posture of pragmatic optimism – toward the future and toward our capacities to anticipate shape, and adapt to it.

In their recent book Tomorrowmind, Martin Seligman and Gabriella Rosen Kellerman suggest a simple, useful practice that can help us to break away from either/or extremes in our future imagination and, in the process, to build cognitive agility as a foundation for greater adaptability.

(1) When you find yourself jumping to what might be a worst- (or best-) case possibility in a time of uncertainty, draw a line with the words “worst possible” on one end and “best possible” on the other, and place the outcome you’ve envisioned at the appropriate extreme.

(2) Now apply your imagination to envision the opposite extreme. What would be the best or worst-case outcome of the one you envisioned? Place that possibility at the other end of the line.

(3) Finally, envision at least three outcomes that would exist somewhere along the continuum (which can also be oriented from “no change” to “extreme change,” etc.) in the middle of the line. This process pushes your mind to explore a range of possibilities and begin to recognize some factors that might shape a given outcome and contribute to making it more or less likely.

Seeing the range of possible futures laid out in this way allows us not only to recognize both catastrophizing and utopian thinking; we’re also able to identify the assumptions that might bias us toward either extreme, better understand the distribution of probabilities along that spectrum of outcomes, and finally, start to ask the questions – about what we can actually do today to influence or prepare for tomorrow – that can unlock agency amid uncertainty. (via Jeffrey)