Why People Still Believe in Predictions, Even Though They’re Rarely True

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The Internet is just a fad. The end of the world will be in 2012. Elon Musk and Grimes will soon be living on separate ends of Mars. These are three predicted events in recent history, much like insignificant weather announcements. The desire to predict, and to believe in these flights of reality, is unfailingly human. Think of the loosely framed prophecies of Nostradamus; the George Orwellian spirit that we evoke; the The Simpsons scene that often becomes fodder itself; or the wordy mirror to which the wicked stepmother seeks answers.

Experts have tried to forecast the price of oil since the dawn of the oil industry in the 19th century; they have maintained their track record of being wrong ever since. The curve that global economies will adhere to, the see-saw demands in the labor market, the wellness brand that consumers will choose, how quickly AI will change our ways of being – it’s all a game fair for forecasters of the future. Ironically, studies have ruthlessly shown that the experts are probably the worst at predicting things.

Before we break down the “why” behind this urge to anticipate things, here’s a spoiler for them and for us: “Predictions fail because the world is too complicated to predict accurately,” as the author Dan Gardner. future babble, noted with authority. Time is not linear, people change, ideas change, the socio-political structures that hold it all together crumble and reinvent themselves. Second, making false predictions is the norm, not the exception.

So why do people still believe in predictions? The art of intercepting the future is not new. We are programmed to avoid uncertainty and ambiguity, our brains are literally wired that way. “From an early age, we respond to uncertainty or lack of clarity by spontaneously generating plausible explanations,” writer Maria Konnikova noted in The New Yorker. Once we have explanations, we don’t let them go – they make us feel more in control (than we really are). The Internet then feeds on these considerations of what works, what does not work and what can happen.

Then there is the question of the spirit. We have a lot of prejudices. One is the tendency of people to be unrealistically optimistic. “People don’t say, ‘This can’t happen to me.’ It’s more like, ‘He could happen to me, but it’s not as likely [for me] like other people around me,” Rutgers University psychologist Neil Weinstein told The Atlantic. In other words, the belief that the things we want to happen will actually happen depends on (misplaced) security. Weinstein discovered this nuance of optimism in 1970, explaining why people predict that they are less likely than others to suffer illness, injury, divorce, any adverse event, even when facing risks. similar.

“For example, psychologists have shown that people very easily convince themselves that a bit of random luck was, in fact, the result of skill. Even when the task at hand is to guess which side of a coin will appear when flipped – the very symbol of chance – people are easily convinced that their correct guesses were the result of skill, not luck,” Gardner told the Economic Times. .


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Unrealistic optimism may seem innocuous in theory; after all, what harm can billions of people who believe in the best of the world do? Many. “When people predict their future behavior, they tend to overemphasize their current intentions, producing an optimistic bias for behaviors associated with currently strong intentions,” researchers noted in 2014. This makes people less sensitive to situational obstacles – such as obstacles or competing demands, which can “interfere with the translation of current intentions into future behavior”.

The blind spot does not exist in silos. There is a “projection bias” that closely guards our optimism. People tend to assume that others hold opinions similar to their own, which fuels a belief in predictions. In other words, it’s a “self-forecasting error,” where people overestimate how much our future selves will share the same beliefs. Two years ago, people would have thought everyone would be equally careful when it comes to living through a pandemic. Two years later, vigilance and the urge to conform have fallen.

There is also a nice theory called “learning unrelated to outcomes”; people learn whatever lessons they want from history. This makes them feel like they are in a great position to explain that what happened before was consistent with their point of view. So what will eventually happen is also under their control. Experts have noted that people are notorious for mistakenly basing predictions on our past experiences (oh, the irony of using the past to predict the future). The Fukushima nuclear reactor was built to withstand a catastrophic historic earthquake, but it failed disastrously when the 2011 tsunami struck. “It’s not a failure of analysis; it’s a lack of imagination,” noted author Morgan Housel.

Additionally, when we get new information, “confirmation bias” kicks in, emboldening us to think that the new information is what we already think is correct.

Ultimately, people are likely to believe anything if the outcome affects them. This is what the scholar Daniel Defoe wrote in 1722 when chronicling the Great Plague of London:

People were more addicted to astrological prophecies and conjurations, dreams and old wives’ tales than they had been before or since…almanacs frightened them terribly…house posts and street corners were covered with bills of doctors and papers of ignoramuses. charlatans, charlatans and inviting people to come to them for cures, which was usually triggered by boasts such as these: “Infallible preventive pills against the plague”. ‘Steadfast preservatives against infection.’

People’s willingness to believe a prediction is determined by how much one needs that piece of divination to be true. People predict because they don’t like uncertainty, but uncertainty makes people more likely to make ridiculous predictions because of their bias. Think of the pandemic: prediction after prediction sticks together like bricks to form an unstable tower of the future.

But what makes us so bad at predictions? On the one hand, people are bad at synthesizing data. Humans are very bad at understanding statistical trends and long-term changes,” political psychologist Conor Seyle told BBC Future. Even Stephen Hawking once said that we can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance. This was proven by an experiment: while meteorologists were able to predict a five-day forecast with 90% accuracy, the same statistic dropped to 50% for a 10-day forecast.


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Moreover, we don’t even pay attention to the data most of the time. We think it’s the lack of humanity in algorithms that makes them bad at predicting things. So we tend to rely on what we think we know when we make decisions. According to a 2008 study, researchers looked at brain scans to identify when participants made a decision; it took about 10 seconds before they themselves realized they had decided on something. It was not the data, but our guts that drove the decision.

Second, people are just not good at spotting long-term trends. Alertness to what is happening gradually decreasess, more over the generations. This may be because long-standing trends give people a false sense of complacency. Just one example: in December last year, a survey recorded the expectations and forecasts of some 22,000 adults. Almost three quarters of them said that 2022 would be a much better year, compared to the chaotic world they know. This was led to a pre-Omicron era, when the hope for vaccinations and relative stability became eternal.

Maybe it’s because we don’t know which factors are most important. Quartz cited this example: “In 1911, Thomas Edison predicted that the homes of the future would be filled with steel furniture. It was a good guess – the material was durable, inexpensive, and ubiquitous. But he forgot that humans don’t really like steel in their homes, both physically (it’s uncomfortable to sit on) and aesthetically (doesn’t produce that warm vibe).

Arguably, making accurate predictions might not be biologically possible because humans might not have the intelligence for it – we would literally need more glucose. “Most of the time, our estimates are accurate enough to keep us alive and propagate the species. If you were doing a lot of high-level calculations, you would need more brainpower,” said behavioral scientist Susan Weinschenk. We then care less about accuracy and more about rough estimates.

To have a better view of the future, we will have to put our prejudices at bay and have more confidence in numbers, data and trends. Or we could just embrace the uncertainty and roll with the punches. If not, maybe it’s time to dress up in fancy dresses and say: Mirror, mirror, on the wall, what does 2022 hold amidst the chaos of it all?

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