Introduction

Humans have always strived to achieve the impossible, though they have not always succeeded in their efforts. The Icarus story is iconic for depicting failure in the face of insatiable ambition. This Hellenistic heritage is also found in a business-related phenomenon called the “Icarus Paradox,” i.e., scaling too rapidly and failing from over-growth (Amason and Mooney 2008; Miller 1992). Moreover, beginners who do not realize the scope and complexity of their undertakings may overestimate their aptitudes—a syndrome called the Dunning–Kruger effect (Kruger and Dunning 1999).

On the contrary, this Hellenistic heritage provides legends of achieving the impossible. For example, Hercules successfully performed the insurmountable and seemingly unrealizable Twelve Labors. To date, we have been on the Moon, and soon, we will be on Mars. Erich Fromm (1990) encouraged us to explore the impossible and overstep limits through philosophy; he believed that, in seeking a higher meaning, individuals try to overstep the boundaries of chaos. Another philosopher, Garry Gutting, documented that French philosophy has been focused on achieving the impossible since the 1960s (Gutting 2013). In addition, the psychologist Abraham Maslow (2019) posited that achieving “self-actualization,” the pinnacle of his hierarchy of needs, may require overstepping one’s (“apparent”) psychological limits.

Exploring the impossible is pivotal in many fields, e.g., in perceiving the philosophy of history as shaped by a passion for “the impossible” (Derrida 1991, 1995; Mason 2007), in inventing a new path for the anthropological understanding of “impossible” cultures (Hauser 2009), and in cognition sciences (Collins 2000). Exceeding oneself has also been a focus of transgression studies (i.e., exploring the impossible and overstepping one’s own personal limits) (Barnhart 1988; Madsen 2014; Sokal 1996).

Moreover, there are multiple case studies of social and business innovators who aim to achieve the “unthinkable” and accomplish goals that are perceived by others as undoable (Bornstein 2004; Elkington and Hartigan 2008; Praszkier and Nowak 2012; Praszkier 2018). These individuals go against the influence of the majority (Asch 1956; Deutsch and Gerard 1955; McLeod 2008, 2018) and create their own bubbles of minority influence (De Dreu and De Vries 2001; Vallacher and Nowak 2007; Gardikiotis 2011).

These case studies, delineating how some individuals relate to seemingly impossible challenges, indicate that there exists a specific property for perceiving challenges as doable.

The possibilitivity concept

This property controls the level of conviction that challenges, even if insurmountable, are achievable. We maintain that each individual has a tendency to evaluate challenges somewhere on the spectrum between two extremes: “It is obviously undoable” and “it is obviously doable.” The proposed name for this mind’s property is possibilitivity (Praszkier 2019a, b), the name’s etymology blending “possible” with “creativity” and echoing the pronunciation of “realizability.”

Approximating doability is a cognitive process, stemming from the balance between perceiving one’s capabilities and analyzing the features of the challenge. One’s capabilities, e.g., self-efficacy, lead to successful outcomes (Akhtar 2008; Bandura 1977, 1982); however, overestimating personal abilities may repress these results (Kruger and Dunning 1999; Stone 2002). Locus of control (i.e., the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of the events in their lives), when located internally, leads to perceiving the environment as responsive to one’s deliberate actions (Rotter 1966). The other mechanisms that augment one’s own capacities may be a belief in the world’s and people’s changeability (Chiu et al. 1997; Dweck 2000, 2006; Levy et al. 1998), optimism (Carver et al. 2010; Carver and Scheier 2014), and the need for achievement (Brockhaus 2017; McClelland 1961). It may be worth further studies if and how much possibilitivity and these mechanisms overlap. However, possibilitivity is based only partially on estimating own capabilities; it is mainly based on cognitive analyzing a challenge, which may be more or less diligent and informed: In some cases supported by academic knowledge of problem-solving (e.g., Taylor et al. 1994) and mapping the challenge (Harry et al. 2005); in other cases by practical skillsFootnote 1 or intuition.

Along these lines, the level of possibilitivity is based on an internal level of one’s aptitudes matched with the understanding of the problem; each individual has a specific propensity, locating his or her tendency for perceiving the realizability of challenges on the “obviously not doable–obviously doable” scale.

The development of the possibilitivity concept is a significant advancement in the understanding of the relationship between cognition and social behavior, particular in terms of addressing challenges.

Perception of Doability Questionnaire

The goal of constructing an assessment tool for measuring possibilitivity is to capture the way people evaluate challenges.

In this spirit, the chosen method was a combination of projective tests (Piotrowski et al. 1993) and the Psychology of Life Stories approach (McAdams 2001), i.e., asking respondents to evaluate the doability of various challenging situations faced by diverse persons. The assumption was that respondents will identify with the presented persons and, while assessing their challenges, will project their own approaches.

Along these lines, twelve stories of diverse individuals aiming at diverse and demanding goalsFootnote 2 were initially sketched. Next, seven competent raters evaluated these stories for their clarity and level of difficulty. Finally, the three stories that received the highest clarity rating and a high (though not very high) difficulty rating (extremely difficult situations would not differentiate the responds, as an extremely demanding goal would be seen as obviously undoable by everybody equally). The selected stories were about one man (Collins from Kenya) and two women (Lucky from Nepal and Olga from Columbia). The narrative was located in the moment when these protagonists were planning a novel and challenging solution to some insurmountable and, thus far, intractable problems.

Eight statements served for evaluating the perception of doability (through a Likert scale), e.g., “X seems being on a roll and she/he can do it,” “I doubt X will succeed,” and “It’s too challenging, X will fail.”

As the possibilitivity concept is new, it was decided to apply a two-phase validation process: Addressing an N1 > 200 sample and, after initial adjustments, carrying on with a representative sample of the society, N2 > 1000.

Validation

The questionnaire was piloted in two rounds in the Polish population: First pilot, N1 = 220, with 118 women (53.6%) and 102 men (46.4%).

Out of the eight statements, six received positive discrimination power, while the other two insufficient discrimination power; after removing the latter two, the discrimination power of the six remaining statements related to the three stories was deemed good (see Table 1).

Table 1 Discrimination power of the first pilot (N1 = 220) with statements 5 and 6 removed

Moreover, the reliability reached a good level (see Table 2).

Table 2 Reliability of the first pilot (N1 = 220)

The factor analysis revealed that these six statements—in all three cases—fell into two components, which were labeled as “action” (e.g., “In my opinion, Collins will achieve his goals”) and “vision” (e.g., “What Collins is planning to do does not look realistic”).

In the next step, six new statements were added to the previous six, so as to achieve a balance between both components and between straight and reversed statements. Finally, a 12-statement questionnaire was sent on to the next validation round: Second pilot (or validation round), a representative sample of the Polish society of N2 = 1117.

The sample

The sample was representative for the Polish society (N2 = 1117):

  • 575 women (51.5%) and 542 men (48.5%).

  • 278 subjects (24.9%) performed a leadership role, whereas 839 (75.1%) did not.

  • 251 subjects (22.5%) were involved in a social project, whereas 866 (77.5%) were not.

  • For age and education, see Tables 3 and 4.

Table 3 Age distribution
Table 4 Education level

Psychometric parameters of the questionnaire

Eight (out of twelve) statements were identified as having good discrimination power in relation to all three stories (Table 5).

Table 5 Discrimination power of the second pilot (N2 = 1117)

Moreover, the reliability reached a good level (see Table 6).

Table 6 Reliability of the second pilot (N2 = 1117)

Factor analysis (varimax rotation and principal components analysis) did not confirm that the eight statements fall into two components (in any of the three stories). As the second (N2 = 1117) sample was representative, this would indicate a final one-factor model.

The final version of the Perception of Doability Questionnaire consists of three stories followed by eight Likert scale statements (see “Appendix”).

Creating a societal index

The sample (N2 = 1117) was prepared as representative of Polish society. In this vein, the assembled data were eligible for constructing a societal index.

The average for possibilitivity, measured as the average result of the eight statements relating to the three stories in the 1117 responses, was PI = 3.41 (SD = 0.58).

The convergence to normal distribution was analyzed using the Kolmogorov–Smirnov test. The results indicate that both skewness and kurtosis are close to zero, which allowed to use the PI index as the norm for Polish society (see Table 7).

Table 7 Basic psychometric parameters of the Perception of Doability Questionnaire

Cross-segment comparative analysis

To determine if women and men differ in their level of PI, an independent samples Student's t-test was performed. The analysis showed a significant difference: t(1117) = 5.978; p < 0.001, with women achieving higher scores than men (see Table 8).

Table 8 Difference between the PI of men and women

There was no significant difference in the PI between age groups, role (i.e., leadership or not), and involvement in social projects.

To determine if gender and age differentiate the PI level, a two-way analysis of variance was performed for both five (Table 3) and three age clusters (i.e., 18–34, 35–54, and over 55). The results confirm the differentiating role of gender across the entire population, as well as in each age cluster.

However, neither of these analyses showed any significant difference in PI between the age segments.

Results

The validation process documented that the final eight-statement Perception of Doability Questionnaire is appropriate for both scientific purposes, e.g., comparison between segments of society, and for diagnostic goals, e.g., determining the individual level of possibilitivity. For the latter, the identified possibilitivity index (PI) reflects the societal average.

Conclusions

The propensity for perceiving insurmountable challenges as doable seems an important property, especially in the context of human social activity. It is embedded, on the one hand, in individual cognitive processes and, on the other hand, relates to social, business, or political issues, and as such, it forms a foundational mechanism for change-making and transgressing the seemingly impossible.

This is the first step in identifying and understanding the concept of possibilitivity, which is worth further study. It is especially important to research how possibilitivity relates to other characteristics, e.g., the Empathy Quotient Short (Wakabayashi et al. 2006), the Adversity Quotient (Stoltz, 1999), ambiguity tolerance (Bochner, 1965; Budner 1962), or creativity and divergent thinking (e.g., Runco and Acar 2012). It is also important to perform further comparative studies, comparing diverse segments of society.

For these purposes, the Perception of Doability Questionnaire seems a good fit. Herein, it was tested in the Polish culture, and it seems important to verify and adapt it to other cultures as well. Moreover, it would be important to cross-culturally analyze the outcomes mentioned in this paper. For example, it is intriguing that there was not a significant difference between those engaged in social projects and those not involved—does this occur in other cultures as well?

It would be especially valuable to analyze whether the significantly higher PI level in Polish females also manifests in other cultures. If it does, then it may shed some new light on the existing and potential role of women as change-makers. If it is exclusive to Poland, then this may be attributable to the role women have played in Polish protest movements, especially in the Polish underground peaceful solidarity movement of the 1980s (Brown 2003; Penn 2006) and the 2020–2021 well-organized Polish anti-government protests and demonstrations (Women Strike protests).Footnote 3 These leadership roles, successfully performed by women, as well as the higher education level reached by women (compared to men), may have contributed to their stronger possibilitivity conviction.

Finally, as the possibilitivity level matters in solving human problems, it seems valuable to identify methods of training, especially for future leaders and the younger generation, that augment their propensity for perceiving challenges as doable. This may be especially critical in conflict areas for innovating peace-making methods, or in high-poverty areas for creating novel solutions to combat hunger and impoverishment. Further studies may identify methods to increase the level of conviction so that the thus far intractable, though pressing, problems may be successfully addressed.