A theme on this blog is trying to gain more insight into how people work, so that we can use that to grow. Today I’d like to look at how we predict the future, because it informs how we plan. Most of our actions are based on guesses about what will happen in the future and what will make us happy, and so to some extent, we can change our behavior by understanding and changing how we do that prediction.
I have to betray a bias up front, that I don’t think anyone really can predict the future. The future is fundamentally uncertain. This doesn’t excuse us from having to make our best predictions about it, because we have to make decisions, and for our sanity, we have to base them on something. So we may not have good ways of predicting the future, but we still have to do our best.
Amos Tversky was a famous cognitive scientists, who together with his partner Daniel Kahneman, built a body of work that went deep into how people make decisions, predict the future, and all of the innate biases that we have in doing this. A recent excellent book, The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis, is the story of their collaboration together. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
This body of work is large enough that a post cannot do it justice. Instead we’ll take some of Tversky’s thoughts, which are said to have been written on a piece of paper Tversky kept by his desk, to draw out the essence of how people predict the future.
Vague Stories Rule
The first set of “Tversky Sayings” deals with stories.
- People predict by making up stories
- People accept any explanation as long as it fits the facts.
- Everything that has already happened must have been inevitable.
- People predict very little, and explain everything
These three establish the groundwork; humans are built to make sense of the world with narrative stories, with actors, motivations, causes, and effects. The world doesn’t actually work like that all of the time, but it is how we think. And as a result it drives out predictions. By “predict very little, and explain everything”, this refers to our tendency to be vague and unspecific about what will happen, and then after the fact (when the outcome is known) come up with stories about how it made sense all along.
Consider the 2016 US Presidential Election: prior to the outcome, the general consensus was that Hillary Clinton would win. When she didn’t, a very large number of people were very surprised, and yet not even a day later, there were thousands of articles about why she lost and that it made sense.
In short: people prioritize narratives that make sense, and have a very strong tendency to do so. This is very useful most of the time, but constrains us. To improve our thinking, we need to explicitly consider plausible/possible outcomes that violate or invalidate the narratives we are carrying.
A further set from Tversky’s desk:
If I just had enough information…
- People believe they can tell the future if they work hard enough
- The handwriting was on the wall. It was just the ink that was invisible
- People often work hard to obtain information they already have and avoid new knowledge
There is a basic human tendency to believe that if we just had more information, the world would reveal itself. This tendency comes because of the baseline assumption that the world makes sense and always follows stories and causality.
It might seem that the future is already written in invisible ink. But it simply isn’t so. The world is simply too complicated, and events 7 days from now may well be driven by events 4 days from now, (still future) even those we cannot predict. The future is not written anywhere, anyhow.
The key insight is that our future prediction is only half about knowing the truth. The other half is about humans striving for certainty. If we can know that about ourselves and to some extent release some need for certainty, then we can focus on making better predictions (or at least being fooled less by our own needs).
As for avoiding new knowledge, we all have points of strong conviction, and in all of this confusion, we may have our own wrong ideas to battle against!
Expect the Unexpected
So we need stories. And we need information to think through our stories. But our needs and wants do not change the way the universe works, which bring us to the last 2 Tversky quotes:
- People live under uncertainty whether they like it or not
- Man is a deterministic device thrown into a probabilistic Universe. In this match, surprises are expected.
Thinking about this in positive terms, uncertainty and surprise is what makes for spice and excitement. Good decision making should seek to begin by accepting reality, and trying to stay aware of our limitations, rather than trying to “believe the world” into what we want.
A final quote from Tversky, which is about our action in the future and fits so perfectly with people’s individual journey and personal work:
It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place.Amos Tversky