Toolkit: Thought Experiments

Thought Experiments

Thought experiments are independent mental activities that increase a player's self-awareness. Some thought experiments involve guided fantasies in which participants visualize new patterns of behavior or hold a silent dialogue with their alter ego. When combined with self-reflection, ideas and emotions generated through these mind games provide valuable insights.

Losses: A Sample Thought Experiment

You are one of 15 managers who have been selected to receive special training in change management. At the beginning of the two-day workshop, Almita, your facilitator, explains that she is going to conduct a guided-visualization activity that will involve personal information. This makes you slightly anxious. However, Almita reassures you by emphasizing that there will be no interaction among participants; nor will anyone be forced to share their thoughts and feelings.

Almita asks everyone to tear a piece of paper into eight smaller pieces. She asks you to write the names of two people who you enjoy working with, each name on a separate piece of paper. You write the names of your manager, Kathy, and your coworker, Dinesh. Following further directions from Almita, you write two each of these items on separate pieces of paper:

  • work activities that you enjoy
  • personal competencies that you bring to your job
  • equipment that you enjoy using

Almita begins to tell a story: Your company has hired a high-priced re-engineering consultant to recommend work-process improvements. As a result of implementing these changes, you lose two of your favorite items. To simulate this, Almita asks you to examine your pieces of paper and remove any two that you are willing to sacrifice for the sake of improved productivity at work. After some struggle, you decide to give up your desktop computer and your weekly team meetings. You put aside the two pieces of paper.

Almita's story continues. After 3 weeks, the consultant returns with additional recommendations. As a result, you have to give up two other favorite items from your remaining set.

As you anticipated, during the next segment of the story, you lose two more items.

During the third round, Almita changes the procedure slightly. She explains that due to increasing global competition, your company has launched an aggressive cost-reduction campaign. Your decision-making authority has been reduced significantly. Almita now asks each participant to reach over to the two remaining pieces of paper that belong to a participant seated nearby and randomly remove one to simulate this situation.

You are now left with a single piece of paper with “creative problem solving”, an important competency that you bring to your job.

Almita asks everyone to look at the item on the last piece of paper and cherish it for a few moments. She then tells everyone: “Crumple this piece of paper and throw it on the floor. You have been downsized and your branch of the company has been moved to Mexico.”

After a break, Almita talks about unanticipated personal losses that always accompany change initiatives in large organizations.


As a training strategy, thought experiments have several advantages:

  • Higher level objectives. Thought experiments enable participants to achieve objectives in the intrapersonal domain through increased self-awareness. These playful strategies sometimes enable participants to achieve objectives in the spiritual domain.
  • Any number can play. In a coaching situation, you can conduct a thought experiment with a single participant. At the other extreme, you can conduct this type of activity with a large group of participants by having individuals go through the activity in a parallel fashion, without interacting with each other (as in the preceding sample).
  • Anytime, anywhere. Most thought experiments do not require special supplies or equipment since they merely involve thinking through a structured set of situations.
  • Proven techniques. Studies from different schools of psychology give empirical support to this type of activity. For example, behavioral therapists have long established the effectiveness of mental roleplay (which they call behavioral rehearsal). Psychologists who study creativity have repeatedly demonstrated the positive impact of visualization.


Thought experiments have their share of disadvantages and limitations:

  • Extreme skepticism. Most managers reject this type of activity because it smacks of new-age thinking, Eastern religion, and pop psychology. Reacting to their earlier experiences with eccentric activities conducted by overenthusiastic trainers, participants may disbelieve the efficacy of what you are attempting to do.
  • Extreme gullibility. Equally dysfunctional is the mindless acceptance of the outcomes of a thought experiment as validated data about personal weaknesses and strengths by naïve participants. Such participants may take some interesting (but trivial) insight out of context and blow it out of proportion.
  • Peer pressure. An important requirement for the success of a thought experiment is the preservation of privacy. Even when you discourage unnecessary sharing of personal information among participants, some people's spontaneous self-disclosures may place unnecessary peer pressure on others.

Types of Thought Experiments

All thought experiments share these two key features:

  • Structure. The activity may require you to visualize freely and come up with imaginative ideas. However, all of these tasks are accomplished within a prearranged structure.
  • Focus on the individual. The activity safeguards the privacy of the individual so that she may think thoughts and feel emotions without the fear of having to disclose them to others.

Different types of thought experiments vary in two key aspects: how instructions are presented and what types of responses are required.

Instructions to participants may be presented in the following forms:

  • Written instructions can be presented in the form of a questionnaire or a worksheet. This approach removes the need for an external facilitator and provides total freedom and privacy to the participant. However, it may result in intentional or accidental peeking ahead. Also written instructions will obviously be useless if the participant is asked to close her eyes and visualize imaginary events.
  • Audio recordings are especially useful with visualization exercises. While it helps to have a professional voice recording the instructions, I have sometimes asked each participant to record their own sets of instructions using a written script.
  • Facilitators may present instructions using a script. An advantage of this approach is the flexibility for the facilitator to adjust the sequence and pace. A disadvantage is the inhibiting presence of an authoritative outsider.

Thought experiment participants may be asked to respond in any of the following modes:

  • Thinking. Some thought experiments simply require participants to imagine, visualize, fantasize, recall, analyze, evaluate, or rehearse—all in their heads. This pure form of thought experiment can be conducted in any situation. (I frequently indulge in such thought experiments in the midst of boring meetings even while maintaining eye contact with the speaker.)
  • Writing. Some thought experiments encourage participants to write down their ideas, insights, and action plans. An advantage of this approach is a permanent record of the outcomes. A disadvantage is the interference with the thinking process.
  • Drawing. Some thought experiments require participants to draw (and interpret) their ideas and insights. This approach can be effectively used with people with limited language skills. However, this approach requires paper and suitable drawing materials.
  • Speaking. Some thought experiments may encourage participants to talk out their ideas and feelings. I sometimes encourage participants to record their thoughts on tape for future review. I have had many thought-experiment conversations with myself in crowded airports without having strangers stare at me simply by holding a fake cellphone to my ears. In a coaching situation where a high level of trust has already been established, you may encourage your coachee to think aloud—and probe for further clarification.
  • Computers can provide game instructions—and accept typed responses. You may have read about computer programs being successfully used to provide simple therapeutic interventions. These programs use artificial intelligence to carry out a non-judgmental but probing “conversation” with individuals. With improvements to voice-recognition technology, the time is not far away when participants can have a real chat with the computer.

More Samples

Here are some sources of thought experiment activities along with additional examples:

Have you been cubed yet? One of the oldest thought experiments is The Cube. This game, popular in the coffeehouses of Eastern Europe, is reputed to be of ancient Sufi origin. The game involves participants imagining a desert landscape with five specific elements. According to a current book about this game, your answer is a “soulprint” that provides a profile of your inner life. You can interpret the answer to discover unconscious truths about how you define yourself. If you are intrigued, you can get detailed directions and interpretations from either of these two books written by Annie Gottlieb and Slobodan Pesic:

  • The Cube: Keep the Secret (ISBN: 0-06-251266-8)
  • Secrets of the Cube: The Ancient Visualization Game That Reveals Your True Self (ISBN: 0-7868-8257-3)

Made in Japan. Kokology is a current fad in Japan that was created by Isamu Saito, a professor of psychology at Rissho University. Kokology activities ask you to answer questions about seemingly innocent topics and then reveal what your answers say about you.

Here's a sample activity from the paperback book, Kokology: The Game of Self Discovery (by Tadahiko Nagao and Isamu Saito published in 2000 by Fireside, ISBN 0-684-87148-3): Your task is to return to your childhood perspective and draw a design on a piece of paper using a single circle and any number of triangles and squares. After you have completed the task, you turn the page for instructions on how to interpret your design: The circle represents you while the triangles stand for work and study and the squares reflect society and its rules. The book suggests the significance of the size and the location of the circle, and the number, size, overlap, and locations of the triangles and squares. Even if you don't agree with the interpretation, the activity encourages you to think about your sense of self and your relationship with the world of work.

Beyond chicken soup. Forty of my most favorite thought experiments are contained in Drew Leder's brilliant book, Games for the Soul: 40 Playful Ways to Find Fun and Fulfillment in a Stressful World (published by Hyperion, ISBN 0-7868-8331-6). Surprisingly, this is a book on spiritual growth written by a professor of Western and Eastern Philosophy. However, the author does not believe in hard labor and self-sacrifice and suggests that fun, joy, and creativity can help you explore such basic values of generosity, gratitude, love, and forgiveness. In this truly inspirational book, Drew Leder draws from different religions to present his “way of play” without ever preaching or pontificating.

Here's an elegant mind game based on Leder's Time Traveling that I play almost every day. Whenever I get flustered, I enter into my imaginary time machine, set the dials for 20 years into the future, and observe what is happening from this distanced, detached perspective. Invariably I stop whining when my current disaster shrinks down to a small inconvenience. For playful instructions on how to use this activity as a TUD (Trivia Unmasking Device) and MUD (Meaning Unfolding Device), get a copy of Leder's book.