Do you want to predict the future?

I beg your pardon?

Did you just answer with a Yes?

That is great, because that proves that you are human and/or a human being.

Did you know that the human being is the only animal that thinks about the future?

how to predict the future

What’s next?

Wehuman beingsthink about the future in a way that no other animal can, does, or even has, and this simple ordinary act is a defining feature of our humanity.

Our human brain is an “anticipation machine” and “making the future” is the most important thing that it doesour brain was made for “nexting” and that’s what it would do.

About 12% of our daily thoughts are about the future; in other words, every eight hours of thinking includes an hour of thinking about things that have yet to happen.

We are all in this together, living as part-time residents of tomorrow; nevertheless, by any objective measure, we are lousy at predicting the future.

Admittedly, predicting the future of the entire world would be a challenge, since we are not even good at predicting whether a certain individual stock would move up or down tomorrow.  Even when it comes to only predicting ourselves, we fail miserably, because we are unable to know how we would feel a day, a month, or a year, from now.  That’s why imagining and “connecting to” your future self is quite a challenge, but worth continuous attempts (as I just mentioned in my previous post).

we are lousy at predicting the future

Imagine looks like I’m aging – no that cannot be – it’s just my imagination

As so often is the case, our mind (and how it works) is to be blamed, in particular, for the shortcomings of our imagination.

In a way our imagination isn’t particularly imaginative, for it has the tendency to fill in and leave out without telling us.  Hence, our imagination is remarkably bad at telling us how we would think when the future finally comes.

Additionally, our personal experiences aren’t nearly as good at correcting these errors, as we all have many natural (!)  biases that have stealthy ways of distorting our thinking.

That’s why I constantly aspire to rectify my thinking about the future by trying to overcome some of these thinking errors:

Presentism:  The tendency for a current experience to influence my views of the past and the future.

Hindsight Bias:  Predicting things is difficult; nevertheless, I keep doing it.  Why?

Because everything seems so obvious in hindsight, and since it does, I get the impression that predicting the future should be easy.  This undermines the idea that the future is predictable, which clearly is not the case.

The illusion that I understand the past leads me towards overconfidence (another bias in itself) in my ability to predict the future.  But, in reality, what actually happens in hindsight would often seem downright absurd if I told it to someone in the past.

Normalcy Bias:  I assume that because something has never happened before, it won’t (or can’t) happen in the future.

Nonetheless, upon checking history records, it appears that everything that had ever happened in history had been “unprecedented” at one time.

Still, randomness is difficult to accept, in spite of it being a fact of life.  Why?

Because human nature likes orderand our brain lives on a preferred diet of stability, certainty, and consistencyand perceives unpredictability, uncertainty, and instability as threats to its survival, which is, in effect, our survival.

So, despite what the law of chance might tell me, I still search for patterns among random events wherever they might occur.

Forecasting Folly:  Economists are great at this.  History never repeats itself precisely.

Hence, my trying to predict the future by extrapolating the past is folly.

I like to tell stories to myself (and others) about past successes being the result of my skills, rather than luck, which makes my “forecasting folly” problem worse.

Certainty Bias:  The state of not being certain is an extremely uncomfortable place for my brain to be: the greater the uncertainty, the worse the discomfort.

Actually, my brain doesn’t merely prefer certainty over ambiguityit craves it!  But this need to be right is actually just a need to “feel” right.

StubbornInsistenceOn-ComparingThe-Present-ToThePastBias:  This narrative fallacy is my desire to tell a simple, clean story about why something happened, even if the reality is far more complicated and uncertain.

I always get history wrong, because when I look back at specific events, I simply expect them to be repeated in the future.  Nevertheless, it’s so easy to underestimate how much past events had been caused by accident and chance.  Moreover, there is too much history to know it all, and too much history to choose from.

Still, I like to compare.

Because life makes more sense when I am able to explain occurrences in simple stories, but I do need to remain aware that this wouldn’t make me better at predicting what comes next.

End of history illusion:  I have a hard time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today.  I tend to think of change as something that had occurred in the past, but now, today, I’ve got it all figured out.

I fall for that illusion to change little in the future, despite knowing that I have changed a lot in the past.  And this tendency bedevils my decisions-making.

“The act of steering one’s boat down the river of time is a source of pleasure, regardless of one’s port of call.  We think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain—not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.” — Daniel Gilbert

Memory Bias:  My memoryI can’t trust it.

Because human memory is fragile and fallible.  Not only are our memories constructed in our head, like stories based on bits of information, they are also unreliable playbacks of ‘recordings’.

The fact that the information acquired after an event alters my memory (of the event) proves that, firstly, the act of remembering involves “filling in” details that had not been actually stored, and secondly, I am unaware that I’m doing this, because “filling in” happens quickly and unconsciously.

To return to our generally faulty imagination: Rather than imagination, scientists say, we should rely on others as surrogates for our futures experiences, because they might already be experiencing that future eventright nowthat we were merely thinking about.

faulty imagination
Don’t think so much, just ask

The best way to predict our feelings tomorrow would be to perceive how others feel today.  How?

Simply ask them how they feel.

But sadly we don’t utilise this, because we mostly see ourselves as unique and not average.  So, how could others know, right?

And it is this bias that causes us to reject the lessons that the emotional experiences of others have to teach us.

I believe the more humility we have about our ability to make predictions, the more successful we would be in “planning for the future”.

Hmm…perhaps I should ask my grandparents, aunties and uncles more questions, then.

Anyhow, another viable option for me is that I (firstly) understand how I might be messing my life up by looking for happiness in the future instead of just living it day by day.

To that end I constantly remind myself to live in the moment and to stop staring ahead at the unpredictable future all the time.

And one final thought: Have you observed too that much of the typical rat racer’s tensions stem from the need to feel control over the future?

As a result, the rat racer lives in the future, as he or she lives by the “What if”,  in the tense hypothetical future, rather than by the “What is”,  in the calm real present.

More on this thought would be available in my next blog post titled “NOW“.

 

“It’s best to learn wisdom by the experience of others.” — Latin Proverb

“The fool wonders. The wise man asks.” – Benjamin Disraeli

“As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” – Antoine de Saint Exupery (Author of “The Little Prince”)

“Using the visual and auditory areas to execute acts of imagination is a truly ingenious bit of engineering, and evolution deserves the Microsoft Windows Award for installing it in every one of us without asking permission.” — Daniel Gilbert

8 Comments

  1. Hi Tacomob,

    I like the “end of history illusion”.

    The incremental might be so small everyday that we don’t notice it. However, over a period of time, it can be quite significant.

    It’s like our hair and nails growing. You only notice it after a week.

    Will definitely keep that in mind whenever I catch myself anticipating the future to be the same as today.

    • Hi 15HWW,

      Great of you to stop by. Love your comparison with the growing nails.

      It’s actually even more complex: Things take longer to happen than we think they will, and then happen faster than we thought they could. This applies to investment growth as well.

      Got to go and clip my nails now.

  2. Hi Andy

    Good read. However, you lost me halfway as my attention span is short. haha. I have to re-read again.

    Living now, making every moment counts. Isn’t that the best gift we can have for ourselves? Cheers!

    • Hi Frugal Daddy,

      You too? I also got lost when writing it. Haha. There are just too many biases trying to play tricks on us. Might have attempted to squeeze too much into this one blog post. Hopefully your re-reading was well-invested time for you.

      I am grateful for your feedback, because only with readers’ feedback would I know whether I am still on the right track or merely rambling.

      Good choice to make every moment count, as we anyhow can only influence the current moment and neither the past nor the future.

  3. Many of us who are doing investments & meddling in stocks are guilty of these biases most of the time as we are looking for happiness in the future (e.g when the stock prices rise & when we get dividends).
    I read this blog a few times & every time I read it I find it becomes more interesting.
    I hope it will help me to live more comfortably in the present.

    • Yes, we are all guilty of so many biases. Awareness of them is the first to ‘manage’ them in our long term favor.

      I appreciate your loyal readership and strive to keep it interesting.

  4. Hi Andy,

    “I believe the more humility we have about our ability to make predictions, the more successful we would be in “planning for the future”. I love this phrase!

    “If you expect the best, you get the best. If you expect the worst, you get the worst.”

    To be fair, it does not mean that you are going to get everything just because you believe it. But it guides your mind, so that you do not want things that are not good that happen for you.

    I will like to be positive and have faith that the future is bright! 🙂

    I also hope all the good things will shine on you and your family, now and in future. If you are doing well happily, you will influence the one beside you to be the same and next one and so one and so forth…..

    • Hi Rolf,

      I too believe in the magic of belief. It works (to a certain degree).

      Good approach of yours, being positive is much more fun than looking and grumbling about negative aspects. I love to be a rational optimist. As Tom Bodett quipped: “An optimist laughs to forget, but a pessimist forgets to laugh.”

      Thank you so much for your well-wishes. I agree happiness is contagious. Let’s keep it up together.

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