Humans are bad at predicting the future. We struggle with built-in biases that skew our probability calculations. Recently, a great study was published by, of all people, the CIA. Turns out, they are quite concerned about human’s perception of probability because they are routinely called upon to weigh in on the likelihood of major crises to governmental leaders. What they found was that we all suffer from a few major biases: the availability rule and anchoring.
The availability rule says that we give higher probabilities to events that are similar to ones that we have experienced already. This an understandable practice, experiencing something is the most reliable way to know that a type of event actually happens. The problem is, it gives too much weight to the small sample size of our personal experiences against the huge population size of every experience in the world. The easier to recall and more recent a memory is, the more it disproportionately influences our thinking. Like most biases, even if we know we are susceptible to it, we still are not able to compensate.
Another downfall of human cognition is anchoring. If someone else voices their opinion first, then our own assessment will be closer to that opinion than is warranted. Again, this is rooted in a beneficial practice. Taking other people’s views into consideration is a way of trying to balance out our own. But, either due to lack of confidence or need for conformity, we give too much gravity to outside influences. The CIA study shows that asking a group to answer a basic calculation by “starting at 25% and work from there,” will anchor our final answer leaving it closer to the prompt and further from the truth.
So, how can we improve our ability to estimate probability? Well, the CIA uses this technique:
“In thinking of such events, we often construct scenarios, i.e., stories that lead from the present situation to the target event. The plausibility of the scenarios that come to mind, or the difficulty of producing them, serve as clues to the likelihood of the event. If no reasonable scenario comes to mind, the event is deemed impossible or highly unlikely. If several scenarios come easily to mind, or if one scenario is particularly compelling, the event in question appears probable.”
Basically, they spitball. They think of crazy scenarios and then imagine ways they might come to pass. Coincidentally, this is the same technique used by many science fiction writers. They dream up a future world and put together the path for it to play out. The sci-fi genre has historically been personified by unathletic fanboys playing dress up and arguing in made up alien languages, but it is becoming increasingly mainstream in popular culture. Now, it seems, it might also become a tool for business intelligence and trend analysis.
Recently, I started writing a science fiction series called Future Office about the future of workplaces. I just published a second chapter that explores privacy and data ownership. I pitched the idea to Elizabeth Knight, the marketing manager at Apto, an innovative commercial real estate sales platform and she let me run with it. I was turned on to the notion of using science fiction as a trend predictor by a new media company called Scout.ai. It is co-founded by two young futurists, Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath and has found backing from investors like Jonathan Sposato the chairman of Geekwire.com, Next Big Ventures, and Matter.vc.
So, how did they first get turned on to the value of fiction for business prediction? “A few years ago, we worked together on an event called Climate Refugees 2026, which had the audience competing on teams to scenario plan the impacts of climate refugeeism. They were all tasked with acting as city leaders and describing how they would respond to a series of external factors,” said Berit Anderson, Scout’s CEO. “I noticed that the audience was more engaged than any I had ever seen. That was the moment that we really saw the power of a fun but profound scenario planning exercise.”
Growing up, Anderson worked with her family to running Future in Review, a $5000 a person conference that brings together world leaders in technology, science, and economics to anticipate the future opportunities and threats of disruptive technology. At the time of its inception in 2002, it was one of the first events of its kind. As a testament to its power, it is still going today. She grew up around visionaries like Michael Dell, David Brin, and Elon Musk.
Berit met her co-founder, Brett, while looking for a roommate on Craigslist. He studied at the University of Washington but dropped out to create the first online voter registration platform. He got excited about the crowdsourcing of insights that can come from an engaged and sophisticated fanbase like they have developed at Scout. Scout is supported by a community of members that pay a $12 per month subscription for special access to thought-provoking science fiction and in-depth trend analysis. “Putting our predictions into stories really lets us do a better job of understanding second and third order effects,” Brett explained.
If you think the exercise is only useful for dreamy-eyed sci-fi enthusiasts, you are wrong. Berit and Brett just got back from Brussels, where Berit debated the former Prime Minister of Sweden about whether or not the Internet is a democratic force in the world. “It was an important chance for Scout to share some of our findings about weaponized AI propaganda and how it’s being used to influence elections,” she said. The Brussels Forum boasts an audience of 300+ world leaders, including the President of Estonia, the Deputy General of NATO and John McCain. “While we made clear that we believe the Internet has had positive impacts on democracy,” she said, “we felt that it was important to raise awareness in the minds of policymakers about how bad actors are increasingly using Internet technologies to distort civic dialogue.” Before the debate, 80% of the audience was polled to believed that the Internet is a force for democracy. After she was done, only 33% did.
I write mostly about the built world. Buildings and infrastructure have incredibly long lifespans and effect huge amounts of the population. I think that this is a particularly important for the people in charge of designing, building and utilizing these stationary assets to think as far into the future as possible. But, the value of futuristic thinking is not limited to industrialists. It can help us all understand how our actions today are going to change the world for the generations to come. By keeping the future in the forefront of our thinking we can see the bigger picture of our collective legacy and prioritize our efforts to preserve it. It can shape the way we raise our children, spend our money and invest our time. The biases that we have built in are not going to go away, no matter how many CIA backed studies examine it. But, by using stories to think more like a futurist, we can hopefully trick our brains into being at least a little better at prediction.