We Can't Predict the Future--And That's for the Best

Defends the failure of people to predict the future. Confusion between prediction and hindsight; How psychologists predict an outcome.

By Ellen J. Langer, published January 1, 2001 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

New Year's is a time when people attempt to predict how they will behave inthe coming months. Predicting the future is nearly impossible. Yet so often we berate ourselves and others for failing to do so. How could we have been so stupid not to have known? Why do we think we should know what will happen? Prediction is extraordinarily hard, even for psychologists in the business of prediction. Moreover, we may want to reconsider whether we really want to be able to predict the future in the first place.

We think we should know what will happen mainly because of the confusion between prediction and hindsight. Knowing in advance that something will occur is very different from knowing that it did occur. There are numerous ways any event or behavior can later be understood. Take, for example, an animated conversation we witness between two spouses. It could be flirtatious, excited--we don't know. Later, the couple gets divorced. Looking back, we link a causal chain of events to that conversation, concluding that it must have been a disagreement. We should have known they'd get divorced, we think.

Scientists have to state their predictions in advance, and they have to be specific. It is easy to predict that someone will do something nice, for example, if we don't specify when they will do it or what nice means. When psychologists try to predict an outcome, they look at a group of data, not a single instance, to determine what will happen. Michael Jordan probably would win if he and I each had 20 opportunities at foul shooting; I could win if we each only shot once. Chance would work in my favor. The more data we create, the more likely it is that our different levels of skill will be revealed. Although we wouldn't predict it, if I was hot that day and he was emotionally distracted, maybe I'd win even then!

People typically are concerned with their own small worlds, and not with what may unfold over time or what happens to "most people." Predicting the outcome of a single case is near impossible given all that can go wrong. Will the chairs we are sitting on hold us? They will until they finally break. When will that be? Who knows? Perhaps the glue will finally cease to hold or the floor may be uneven in that particular spot. We may be correct in predicting what might happen to a group, and so we mistakenly think we should be able to predict a single instance.

And do we really want to have complete knowledge of the future? It is ironic that freedom and control are important to us and yet we still seek predictability. On the face of it, it would seem that the two are related. If I can predict, I can control. A deeper analysis, however, reveals quite a different picture. When we want light, we mindlessly flip the light switch. We have no doubt that it will work, so we don't have to think about it. Without doubt, there is no choice. Without choice there is no feeling of control. Complete predictability would leave us with no need to pay attention to anything any longer. And when would we like to "know" everything completely so we could stop paying attention? When we are 15, 30 or 60 years old? At what point do we want to close the future and live in the past?

Just think about it: If we are aware of the uncertainty of going forward, we're unlikely to blame ourselves for our failures of prediction when looking back. If we allow for uncertainty, we're likely to stay mindful and in the present, and, personally, that's where I want to be.

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Adapted by Ph.D.

Ellen J. Langer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. She is the author of The Power of Mindful Learning (Perseus, 1997) and Mindfulness (Perseus, 1989).