How to Think Our Way Out of a Nightmare Future

To enjoy a tomorrow that's better than today, we need to ditch those biases

Posted May 02, 2017 attribution required
Source: attribution required

Imagine the life proposed by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in their book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Or the future “techno-utopia” envisioned by 100-year old Jacque Fresco, “the oldest celebrity futurist in the world,” whose Venus Project in Florida, USA is a precursor to the city he dreams will one day spark a resource-based economy without taxes, money or ownership. A future in which “most of humanity’s problems would disappear.”

How can we possibly reach such idylls--if, indeed, you see them as preferred futures--without first changing ourselves? 

Some of my fellow futurists believe that where we’re headed, people won’t think, feel and act in the way we do today, I’m less convinced about that. Because there's still a lot of work we need to do taking a good hard look at ourselves, in order to expose those mental blind spots collectively known as cognitive biases. Those ways of thinking that keep us rooted to what was and is, rather than what could be. 

I'm sure you're already familiar with the term cognitive bias (I've written about it before) and are doubtless aware of the unfortunate outcomes resulting from this form of distorted thinking. Having rapid heuristics or “rules of thumb” to draw from in simpler times undoubtedly had adaptive value. But the complexity of today’s world make such mental shortcuts potentially dangerous.

Consider housing bubbles, for example. Among the factors that have contributed to such financially disastrous events, economists include “irrational exuberance.” By which they mean the human bias for disregarding regression toward the mean (in other words, the belief that house prices will continue to go up and up). This tendency to “extrapolate the recent past into the indefinite future” is not confined to laypeople.

As a journal article summarizing “the primary causes of the housing bubble and the resulting credit crisis” of 2008 stated, participants who expected house prices to keep going up included, “government regulators, mortgage lenders, investment bankers, credit rating agencies, foreign investors, insurance companies,” as well as home buyers. In 2005, then-chief economist of the U.S. government-sponsored mortgage loan company Freddie Mac, Frank Nothaft, was reported as saying, “I don’t foresee any national decline in home price values.”

How different is that to Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin who, when asked recently about the effects of artificial intelligence (AI) and potential displacement of human workers by robots, is reported to have responded with:

"It's not even on our radar screen,” adding that the problem is “50 to 100" years away, so that he's "not worried at all. In fact I'm optimistic."

If cognitive biases are defined as "tendencies to think in certain ways that can lead to systematic deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgment," doesn't that comment by a top government official fit the bill? And are the rest of us equally willing to blindly venture into the future, expecting things to be different, indeed in our favor, without changing these kinds of thought patterns? 

Liz Alexander
Source: Liz Alexander

Given that they are as invisible and deadly as marsh gas, how might cognitive bias prevent us from realizing our goals for the future?

Of the 175 examples listed in this helpful "cheat sheet" compiled by Buster Benson, the bias that is arguably the most pervasive is confirmation bias, which prompts us to seek evidence to support our existing beliefs and dismiss anything that contradicts them.

For an example of how insidious this is, consider how certain news outlets and other media pander to particular political ideologies. Ever wondered why people don’t make more informed decisions about the politicians they're voting for? Well, they think they do--in line with what they already believe to be true. Republicans tend to watch conservative Fox News, while Democrats prefer more liberal-leaning channels like CNN and MSNBC. It's a point that Ohio governor, John Kasich made to Trevor Noah on The Daily Show recently. Stressing that this is not good for the country generally. 

Wouldn’t we need to eradicate this kind of mental partisanship before we can hope to experience the end of wars, poverty, hunger, debt and all the other human sufferings that Fresco—among others—views “not only as avoidable, but totally unacceptable”?

So, what can we as a forward-thinking community do to help eradicate biases in our existing systems? I hope this article provokes both debate and the exchange of ideas for which I'm interested in your thoughtful, respectful comments (but please note that I never respond to and immediately delete rude, narrowly opinionated ones). In the meantime, here are a few thoughts. Beyond the obvious, which is that by becoming more aware and deliberately confronting our own biases, we are less likely to fall foul of them. And in doing so, provide a model for others.

What if a group of coders, writers, videographers, and games designers got together to produce the 21st century equivalent of what Orson Welles achieved in 1938? When his dramatized account of a Martian invasion of Earth on radio was so realistic it caused nationwide panic? Under the thrall of “normalcy bias,” people remain in denial about any kind of disaster they haven’t yet experienced.

This might be related to the threat to world cities of cyberattacks, for example. Because, as Cesar Cerrudo, the Chief Technology Officer of IOActive Labs writes on LinkedIn:   

Without clearly seeing or directly experiencing the problem, the public doesn’t generally care. People need to see me and other ethical researchers hacking traffic lights, smart grids, and so on in order to understand that the threat is real, and not just theoretical.

Are we a lot less gullible than in 1938? Probably. But that didn’t stop people believing that the Blair Witch Project was the actual filmed footage of three missing students rather than a clever horror movie, as recently as 1999. Wouldn’t it be a remarkable challenge to successfully scare the living daylights out of everyone with a realistic simulation of what’s likely to happen if we don’t urgently address some of the most potentially cataclysmic events likely to occur in the future -- whether that's due to climate change, cyberattackers or clever robots?   

Finally, there is a reason why most people are so hooked on dystopian visions of the future, in contrast to the utopias with which I opened this article. It’s called “negativity bias,” or the tendency to give more attention to pessimistic experiences than positive ones. Yet, as much as we may get a visceral thrill from watching Star Wars or Hunger Games, and dismiss the potential reality of Children of Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, is that really how we want our futures to unfold?

If not, we need to start disrupting our minds as quickly as technology is disrupting our lives. And being aware of our biases would be a good place to start. 

What do you think?


Holt, J. (2009) A Summary of the Primary Causes of the Housing Bubble and the Resulting Credit Crisis: A Non-Technical Paper. The Journal of Business Inquiry 2009, 8, 1, 120-129 

About the Author

Liz Alexander, Ph.D., is a consulting futurist and the co-founder of Leading Thought, who collaborates with individuals and organizations globally to help them become future-smart.

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