Anticipatory thinking can be our best ally or our worst enemy. The ability to project ourselves into the future and imagine what might happen allows us to prepare ourselves to face problems in the best possible way, but it can also become an obstacle that plunges us into pessimism and paralyzes us. Understanding how anticipatory thinking works and what traps it can create will help us use this wonderful ability to our advantage.
What is anticipatory thinking?
Anticipatory thinking is a cognitive process by which we recognize the challenges and problems that may arise and prepare to face them. It is a mental mechanism that allows us to formulate possible alternatives for the future and make sense of them before they occur.
Obviously, anticipatory thinking is a complex process involving several cognitive aspects. Not only does it require that we be vigilant to monitor certain events and able to ignore others that are not relevant, but it also asks us to apply our knowledge and experience gained in the past to predict what might happen as we seek possible solutions and address uncertainty and the ambiguity that the future entails.
Indeed, anticipatory thinking is a strategy for identifying and solving problems. It is not simply a matter of accumulating discrepancies until we reach a potentially dangerous threshold, but it asks us to reconsider the situation. This means changing patterns and mental structures. Therefore, anticipatory thinking is a form of mental simulation and a mechanism for generating expectations about what might happen.
The 3 types of anticipatory thinking we use to predict the future
1. Coincidence of models
The experiences we live throughout life allow us to detect the existence of certain patterns. For example, we notice that when there are black clouds in the sky, it is likely to rain. Or that when our partner is in a bad mood, we are likely to end up arguing. Anticipatory thinking uses these models as a "database".
In practice, it constantly compares the events of the present with the past to detect signs that may indicate a difficulty on the horizon or that we are experiencing something abnormal. Anticipatory thinking alerts us when we are about to have a problem. It tells us that something is wrong, based on our past experiences.
Obviously, it is not a foolproof system. Relying too much on our experiences can lead us to make wrong predictions because the world is constantly changing and any small changes that we have not detected can lead to different results. So while this type of anticipatory thinking is important, we need to use it with reservations.
2. Tracking of the trajectory
This type of anticipatory thinking compares what is happening with our predictions. We do not forget our past experiences, but we pay more attention to the present. To predict if a discussion with the partner will take place, for example, using our patterns we will limit ourselves to assessing the level of anger and bad mood, but if we take into account the trajectory we will monitor the mood of the other person in real time.
With this strategy we don't just notice and extrapolate patterns or trends, but we apply a functional perspective. Obviously, the mental process that is put in place to follow a trajectory and make comparisons is more complex than directly associating a signal with a negative outcome, thus requiring more emotional energy.
The main weakness of this type of anticipatory thinking is that we spend too much time evaluating the trajectory of events, so if they fall, they could take us by surprise, unprepared to face them. We risk being mere spectators for too long, with no time to react and without an effective action plan.
This type of anticipatory thinking is the most complex because it asks us to notice the connections between events. Rather than simply responding to old patterns or following a trajectory of current events, we perceive the implications of different events and understand their interdependence.
This strategy is usually a mixture of conscious thinking and unconscious signals. In fact, it often requires putting into practice full attention that allows us to perceive all the details from a detached perspective helping us to form a global picture of what is happening.
In many cases, convergence occurs unintentionally. We are noticing the signals and inconsistencies, as our thinking gives them meaning and integrates them into a more global picture that allows us to grasp the connections and track them to make more accurate predictions.
The benefits of anticipatory thinking
Anticipatory thinking is considered a sign of experience and intelligence in many fields. The great chess masters, for example, mentally analyze the possible moves of their opponents before moving a piece. By anticipating the opponent's moves, they have an advantage and increase the chances of winning.
Anticipatory thinking can be very helpful to us. We can look at the horizon to try to predict where certain decisions will lead us. So we could determine with some certainty which decisions could be good and which ones could harm us. Anticipatory thinking is therefore essential to make plans and prepare ourselves to walk the chosen path.
Not only does it help us anticipate possible difficulties and obstacles, but it also allows us to devise an action plan to overcome problems or at least minimize their impact. Therefore, it can help us avoid unnecessary suffering and save us energy along the way.
The dark side of anticipating problems
“A man was repairing the house when he realized he needed an electric drill, but he didn't have one and all the shops were closed. Then he remembered that his neighbor had one. He thought about asking him to borrow it. But before reaching the door he was assailed by a question: 'what if he doesn't want to lend it to me?'
Then he remembered that the last time they met, the neighbor wasn't as friendly as usual. Maybe he was in a hurry, or maybe he was mad at him.
'Of course, if he's mad at me, he won't lend me the drill. He'll make up every excuse and I'll make a fool of myself. Will he think he's more important than me just because he has something I need? It's the height of arrogance! ' Thought the man. Angry, he resigned himself to not being able to finish the repairs at home because his neighbor would never lend him the drill. If he were to see him again, he would never speak to him again ”.
This story is a good example of the problems anticipatory thinking can cause us when it takes the wrong path. This type of reasoning can become a habitual pattern of thinking that only serves to see problems and obstacles where there are none or where they are quite unlikely to occur.
When anticipatory thinking becomes a mere revealer of difficulties, it leads to pessimism because we take away the most useful part: the possibility of planning strategies for the future.
Then we can fall into the clutches of anxiety. We begin to fear what might happen. Anxiety and distress related to anticipation can create blind spots and build mountains from a grain of sand. So we run the risk of becoming prisoners of anticipatory thinking.
Other times we can go straight into a depressive state where we assume we can't do anything. We are convinced that the problems that are looming on the horizon are unsolvable and we paralyze ourselves, feeding a passive posture in which we see ourselves as victims of a destiny that we cannot change.
How to use anticipatory thinking to make life easier instead of complicating it?
Anticipatory thinking is useful because it allows us to prepare ourselves to respond in the most adaptive way possible. Therefore, we need to make sure that when this kind of thinking is put into action, it doesn't just detect dangers, problems and obstacles along the way, but we need to ask ourselves what we can do to avoid those risks or at least reduce their impact.
The people who use anticipatory thinking best are those who don't just predict problems, but seek meaning. They are not only noticing the warning signs, but are interpreting them in terms of what they could do to address them. Their mind is focused on what they can do and anticipatory thinking takes a functional view.
Therefore, the next time you see problems on the horizon, don't just complain or worry, ask yourself what you can do and prepare an action plan. So you can get the most out of that amazing tool that is anticipatory thinking.