Think about the turbulent events in recent history. Did you predict the election of Barack Obama as the Democratic candidate or did you lean towards Hillary Clinton? And with the Arab Spring, could you guess the revolution at the first signs of dissatisfaction? Were you able to anticipate the crisis in Ukraine?
If your answer to these questions is yes, you could be a «super-forecaster», one of the people who can predict world events with incredible accuracy.
This has nothing to do with reading the future from tea grounds, and you don’t have to be an experienced political analyst either.
Some super-forecasters are ordinary people, from all walks of life, capable of amazingly insightful judgments.
In recent years, psychologists have found a series of hidden mental talents, abilities that may go unnoticed by the people who possess them.
For example, there are «superrecognizers,» those who can remember people’s faces even after seeing them only once and years ago.
And also the «supertasters», those who perceived the flavor in a very intense way, or the «supermemorizers», who naturally remember the events of almost every day of their lives.
Genetics or learning?
These talents may be largely due to our genes, while the ability to predict should, in theory, be the result of experience and learning.
However, political experts are often bad at interpreting what the crystal ball says.
Philip Tetlock, of the University of Pennsylvania, found that these are more likely to be correct with their predictions than if the answers are random.
«Chimpanzees throwing darts at possible outcomes could have gotten nearly as good results as the experts.» This is how the political scientist summarized the conclusions of his study to the American newspaper The New York Times.
Of course, military intelligence agencies kept abreast of the investigation.
Inspired, in part, by one of Tetlock’s reports, the US agency for research projects IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity) sponsored the Good Judgment project, led by the political scientist himself, with the aim of to seek new approaches in political predictions.
In the form of a contest, the agency recruited thousands of participants from all social backgrounds to test their predictive skills by asking questions.
Among other questions, they were asked: «Will Robert Mugabe still be President of Zimbabwe on September 30, 2011?» and «Will Greece become a member of the European Union on June 1, 2012?».
Instead of simply answering yes or no, since these cannot reflect the uncertainty inherent in real life, they were asked to estimate the probability that each event would occur.
After three years of competition, Tetlock’s team published some of their results in the magazine psychological science and during the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, in San Francisco last July.
One of the main goals was to see if some of the forecasters were consistently good at their predictions.
So after a year Tetlock checked the results of more than 2,000 participants and diverted 2% of them, the so-called «super tipsters», to form teams that would compete in the next phase of the quiz show.
By the end of the second year of the study, their performance was up to four times more accurate than the other participants.
Although the political experience may have helped some, the participants came from a wide variety of professions.
«One of the best forecasters was a pharmacist,» Tetlock said.
As might be expected, these elite predictors tended to score higher on the intelligence measure than the other participants.
However, they shared another trait: open-mindedness.
In everyday life, an open mind can be confused with a progressive ideology, but in psychology it reflects the ease of dealing with uncertainty.
According to this, open-minded people tend to be able to see all sides of the issue, which seems to help forecasters overcome their own preconceptions when given new data.
«You need to change your mind fast and often,» Tetlock explained.
Another common trait of effective predictors is self-awareness, or understanding of one’s own weaknesses.
Even the most experienced seers can fall into some traps, so Tetlock’s team was able to test whether just an hour of training could prevent their most common mistakes.
Techniques to avoid bias
He’s reluctant to go into too much detail about the methods, lest it influence future results, but the researcher noted that predictors often start by taking an «insider’s» perspective on the problem.
For example, when considering whether Mugabe will improve in power, he will start by looking for signs of discontent in the country.
However, the study suggests that more accurate predictions can be made if one stops to think and consult historical data.
In Mugabe’s case, a good idea would be to consider the average length of time an authoritarian government lasts and then refine that estimate.
Other strategies contemplated by the research are aimed at reducing cognitive biases.
For example, the study has shown that people tend to make better decisions if they are reminded of common misconceptions, such as exaggerating particularly frightening events.
Also propose the best and worst possible results of a situation, since that opens the mind to all the possibilities and helps to question basic ideas about the event.
These tactics may seem obvious, but all the available evidence on human irrationality suggests that they are easily forgotten, even by those who may know the subject best.
Tetlock also looks for ways to exploit the collective intelligence of super-forecasters.
Many psychologists believe that experts who work in teams perform worse than those who work individually, as they end up reinforcing their specific biases.
«It’s the madness of the masses,» Tetlock said.
However, with a bit of training on how to criticize others’ points of view and how to respond positively to other perspectives, the participants did better.
The team of researchers hopes that these discoveries could end up changing the way in which governments make decisions.
«This is not about the business of prophecy, it is about the business of clarity,» said the political scientist. «We want to increase the intellectual honesty of the predictions.»
The contest put forward by the researchers could also help find ways for everyone to improve their predictive skills in their everyday lives.
Do you need to make an important decision about your future? Accept uncertainty and accept your biases. Although, of course, if you’re a super tipster, you’ve probably already seen these tips.