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The Seer-Sucker Theory

Why are we vulnerable to poor predictions?

Will there be another global financial crisis? When will it be?

Which companies, currently dominating their markets, will cease to exist in a decade? Which companies will emerge in their place?

Which technologies will be disrupted? When will that happen?

How will the political race unfold? Who will win the referendum or the election?

Financial, tech and political experts are making predictions about these kinds of questions on a daily basis. Turn on your TV, radio or social media, and you’ll see dozens of commentators every day “analyzing” the past to “see” into the future.

The troubling fact is that most of these forecasters have poor track records. Nobody convincingly predicted the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of Google and Facebook over Altavista and Myspace, the emergence of personal computing, or many of the recent groundbreaking election results. Yet, despite their demonstrated inability to predict, the experts are still out there, predicting.

Why is that? Why is there still a demand for predictions?

A first reason is that we trust and venerate experience. If someone has extensive knowledge of the past and the technicalities of a field, they must have a better idea of what’s going on. A second reason is that we want to eliminate unknowns and uncertainties. Since experts know better than us, we can delegate predictions to them.

However, in many cases, accurate prediction is just not possible. The future does not always resemble the past and this seriously limits what experts can tell us. Experience does not guarantee a good prediction when there’s rapid change and high uncertainty. Nonetheless, listening to the stories that experts tell, even inaccurate ones, feels much better than having no story at all.

Forecasting scholar Scott Armstrong labelled this tendency “the seer-sucker theory.” He claims that “no matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.”

In short, it’s our uncritical trust in experience and need for comfort that creates the demand for predictions by experts. Paradoxically, the more important the problem, the more we would prefer that some experts absorb all the uncertainty. Yet wisdom doesn’t emerge from knowing with certainty, but from being aware of your level of uncertainty.

More from Emre Soyer, Ph.D., and Robin M. Hogarth, Ph.D.
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