Stop Asking ‘What Should I Do?’

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You’re stuck. You’ve got a problem — maybe an ethical dilemma, maybe a creative block — and are short a solution. What should you do? 

As it turns out, you might be asking yourself the wrong question. Or, more specifically, using one wrong word: Asking “What could I do?” instead of “What should I do?” can lead you to better, more creative answers, according to a recent working paper  by a team of Harvard Business School professors.

Asking yourself, for example, “What should I do with my life?” tacitly implies that there’s a right and a wrong answer to that question. It seems that the word should can cause us to think in black and white, while could reveals the in-between shades of gray. “What initially seems like a problem that involves competing and incompatible principles turned out to be a problem that can be solved when we approach it with a ‘could’ mind-set,” Francesca Gino, one of the paper’s co-authors and author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan, said in an email to Science of Us.

Gino and colleagues Ting Zhang and Joshua D. Margolis explore this concept in their paper, specifically narrowing their study to ethical dilemmas. They were interested in examining how simply swapping should for could may open us up to what they call moral insight, which they define as “discovering solutions that move beyond selecting one conflicting ethical option over another.”

They write:

Shifting individuals’ contemplation toward what they could do changes both their perception of the dilemma and the solutions that they reach. Because the question “What should you do?” implies selecting one moral path, “should” mindsets may lead individuals to focus on weighing and choosing one of two possible courses of action in these dilemmas. Consequently, thinking about “should” may lead people to satisfice in settling for a solution that meets the primary ethical priority while neglecting the other value.

In contrast, a “could” mindset may shift individuals to reconceive the problem as one that does not necessarily involved forced tradeoffs.

In one study, Gino and colleagues used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to recruit 206 adults, who completed an online study in which they were presented with one of four ethical dilemmas. Some were asked “What should you do?” and others were asked, “What could you do?” Then, both groups were asked, “What would you do?” Later, an independent team of coders rated their answers on a scale of one to seven for how creative the participants’ solutions were. Those who were encouraged to think could were rated as more creative (a 5.06 average) than those who were told to think should (4.41). The coders also rated the could group’s decisions as more moral overall than the should group.

This isn’t the first time psychologists have examined this seemingly unimportant distinction. In a 1987 study, researchers gave participants an assortment of random objects, including a rubber band. Some of them were asked to think about what the objects were, while others were told to think about what the objects could be. Then, they asked participants to erase a mark without using an eraser. The people who’d been primed to think could “were more likely to recognize that a rubber band could be used in lieu of an eraser, compared to those who considered what these objects were,” Gino and colleagues wrote in their current paper.

So when you’re facing a dilemma, a smarter question to ask yourself seems to be this: What could I do?