Superforecasting our own happy future

March 20, 2016

Prediction is an area of great interest for me. Is it possible to look into our own futures with any certainty, and how can we become better at looking ahead?

In his new book Superforecasting, psychologist Philip E Tetlock, Professor in Democracy and Citizenship, at Wharton University of Pennsylvania, explores the results of The Good Judgment Project (GJP). This project asked thousands of ordinary US citizens from filmmakers to pipe fitters to make predictions on future geopolitical events (such as the likelihood of a country withdrawing from the European Union in one specific year). The people in the project do not draw on complex briefings, but simply their own understanding of history and world affairs, with a dash of common sense.

These citizens turned out to be surprisingly brilliant at the job, with some scoring such consistent results that they were performing 30 per cent better than average for members of the intelligence community who had access to secret data.

What Professor Tetlock learned is that a couple of thousand of his predictors were what he terms “superforecasters”. These people are better at applying their innate understanding to predict what will happen next in anything from election results to the risk of war breaking out. The superforecasters are, says Tetlock, like the foxes in the essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox.

The essay takes its title from the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” In this, he was applauding the humble hedgehog – how it may not be as quick witted or fast as a fox, who can run, dig, climb, and swim when threatened by danger, but is more secure. All a hedgehog knows is how to roll into a spiky ball – but that is defensive knowledge enough.

Tetlock suggests that forecasters can be divided into “hedgehogs” who are narrowly invested in a single topic, and “foxes” who have a wider, if shallower, range of experience. When it comes to making predictions, it emerges, he thinks foxes are more useful than hedgehogs. Their wider range of skills and wits creates a broader base of experience from which to make a decision. Nor are they focused on one core theory; they are open to changing their minds.

Could we all become foxes, and be better forecasters? Professor Tetlock has several suggestions in his book to improve our ability to become superforecasters.

One I like most is: “Look for the errors behind your mistakes but beware of rearview-mirror hindsight biases.” By this he means, analyse your successful predictions, and don’t try to justify or excuse your mistakes – own them.

What if we want to use our forecasting skills in our personal lives? Rather than getting stressed about individual issues, I suggest we look at our lives in a more holistic, wider way. If we want to know where our career will be in 10 years’ time, this means considering our family life, our health, our previous experiences, what we know others want, what our dreams are.

You might call this holistic forecasting. Certainly that all -inclusive approach can give us a better understanding of what we want, who we are and what we need.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation