Month: March 2016

Predicting the Future

What does it take to predict the future and can anyone really do it? There is an article on the BBC website that claims some people are much better at predicting the future than others. It can be a range of different people, not necessarily the ones you expect, so who knows, you might have this talent.

What Have You Predicted?

We are not saying that people can predict when there will be a tornado or something like that. We are talking about looking at and evaluating things involved with humans. The article asked if you foresaw the election of President Obama early on in his first campaign before he was even nominated by the Democratic Party? Did you have a sense of what was happening with the Arab Spring before it broke wide open? If so, you might have the knack.

People with Extraordinary Talents

People with exceptional talents were at one time not believed or considered outliers but now they are being studied. These include people with amazing memories who can remember what happened almost every day they have lived. There are others who are considered super tasters with a finely tuned sense of tasted. Then there are people called super recognizers who only need to see a person once to be able to remember their face years later. It is thought that these talents might be aided by genetic differences.

Genetic Differences for Super Forecasters?

It is thought that unlike these other talents, super forecasting is not aided by a genetic trait but is more a learned skill and experience helps with this. However, Philip Tetlock from the University of Pennsylvania found that top political forecasters had a record only slightly better than random chance and probably not that different from chimpanzees throwing darts.

Military is Interested

The military is very interested in predicting political change so they can be prepared and not be caught off guard by unrest, revolutions, or terrorism in different parts of the world. ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Activity) sponsored a four year project called the Good Judgment Project to find improved methods for political forecasting.

They took thousands of people and they came from a wide range of backgrounds. It gave them all questionnaires and asked them to make predictions. Not just yes or no, but asked for possibilities of something happening in percentage terms. Things like will Greece remain in the EU or will the president of Zimbabwe stay in power.


After one year, they analyzed the results from over two thousand people. Out of all these, they took the best 2% and put them on teams going forward. By the end of the second year, this super forecaster group was as much as four times better than everyone else in the experiment.

Political expertise didn’t necessarily help although it might have in some cases, but a pharmacist was one of the top forecasters.

What Makes a Good Forecaster?

The top forecasters usually scored higher on intelligence than other participants. Another key to their ability was that they were very open minded. Some make the mistake of interpreting open mindedness as being liberal but psychologists have come to view it as an indication of your ability to deal with uncertainty.

Being open minded means that these forecasters can analyze the problem from all sides and not get stuck in a narrow point of view that will affect their predictions. It also means they can change their mind when new evidence comes up.


Also open mindedness means they are more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. This helps them from making mistakes. However, Tetlock found even the best forecasters can stumble. He has done a bit of training to see if it makes a difference.

They have found that if you get into the details and try and get an inside view, it can lower performance. Stepping back and looking at broader sets of data and historical trends can often be a better way to evaluate. Also, by remembering that people tend to over estimate the risk of frightening events like terrorist attacks. If you look at a best case and a worst case scenario, it can open you to more possibilities and balance your view point.

Teams are Better or Worse?

Some people feel that if you have teams of people, you will get group think and the results will be worse than individuals would do on their own. However, with the right training, Tetlock found the teams performed better than individuals. They got training on the best way to critique the viewpoints of others and the need to respond in a positive manner to other viewpoints.