Why You’re So Bad at Predicting the Future
And five ways to outsmart your own mental biases
It’s human nature to attempt to conceptualize the future. All civilizations, from the ancient to the modern, have had some tradition of divination or fortune telling; these days, we have data and statistical models to give us some insight into what’s to come. But left to our own devices, most of us are really bad at predicting what will happen—and that’s a consequence of the wiring of the human brain.
Collectively, the thought patterns that affect the way we think, make decisions, and interact with other people are known as cognitive biases. Many of these biases also distort our perceptions of what will happen — in elections, in the economy, and in our everyday lives — whether we’re looking ahead by 50 years or 50 minutes.
It’s not all bad news, according to Don Moore, a professor of organizational behavior at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “To listen to psychologists like me talk about the way people fall short of perfect rationality, it’s easy to come away with a depressing message,” he says. “But you can also see the glass as half-full.” Humans are far from perfect at this, but we’re still the best future-predictors on the planet. “Yeah, we don’t do a perfect job of calculating future benefits and losses. On the other hand, we’re a whole lot better at it than chimpanzees.”
The other good news is that you can — at least to some extent — overcome your cognitive biases. The first step is being able to identify them, and know when you’re most susceptible. From there, you can work on getting better at outsmarting your own brain.
1. Hindsight bias
Ironically, one thing that impedes our ability to foresee the future is our tendency to believe we already have — or, at least, that we should have. Hindsight bias is our tendency to remember the past as being more predictable than it actually was.
Sometimes, that means retroactively believing we knew something was going to happen. The 2016 election is one potent example; the initial reactions of shock followed by myriad “We knew it all along” think pieces. Studies show that whatever our real-time predictions may be, once we know an outcome, we’re likely to…