What is a Thought Experiment?
A thought experiment is a set of circumstances – usually fictional – that are setup in such a way that we can think through a concept or problem. It is a scenario offered for consideration, to prove a point or explore a basic principle.
Thought experiments are employed in a number of fields: psychology, physics, ethics, law, economics. It is a way to take abstract principles and make them easy to understand and consider.
A thought experiment has all the elements of a story. All that remains is for us to play out the story in our own minds to discover the consequences.
I became intrigued with thought experiments a couple of years ago when I first got interested in cognitive science. I’ve even constructed a few thought experiments of my own.
On this page I will share some of the thought experiments I’ve discovered or invented. Please share your thoughts and reactions. We can use these thought experiments to explore our ideas and opinions about who we are and how we believe the world works.
Most of us can remember this little gem from our childhood:
“What if all your friends jumped off a cliff? Would you do it too?”
It’s a perfect example of the kind of thought experiment we use all the time to influence the thinking of others. The child who hears it actually goes through the exercise of picturing a group of her friends jumping off a cliff. She can quickly determine whether she wants that adventure for herself. And then she can apply her conclusion to the current conversation. In this case she can decide (as I’m sure many children do) that buying the same backpack that her friends all have is nothing like jumping off a cliff. And she will reject her mother’s thought experiment with a roll of her eyes. But she has thought about it.
Some questions to consider:
- Does this kind of thought experiment really work?
- Can you think of similar thought experiments?
- What is a better scenario for challenging childhood conformity?