Who's Best at Predicting the Future? (and How to Get Better)

New research into why some of us are more open to what's most likely to happen.

Posted May 27, 2015

Source: chaoss/Shutterstock

Most of us probably remember the storyline of Back to the Future: Part II. Biff Tannen, the movie’s most reviled character, steals Doc Brown’s DeLorean-based time machine, travels into the past, and gives his teenage self a future copy of the Sports Almanac. Young Biff then uses the book to place one winning sports bet after another. Eventually touted as the “luckiest man on Earth," Biff amasses a fortune, making him one of the richest men in America.

At some point, we all wish we could be in Biff's positionto possess an almanac of the future; to know, with certainty, what will happen tomorrow, next year, and next decade; to be able to infallibly predict that which has not yet occurred...

Is there a real-world method to enhance the accuracy of our predictions? Beyond time machines, tarot cards, and psychic readings, can we move closer toward possessing our own "almanac of the future"?

A group of psychologists led by Barbara Mellers of the University of Pennsylvania believes this is possible. They have studied this question in the domain of political forecasting with fascinating results. In this month’s issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Mellers and her colleagues explore what makes people adept at answering questions, such as:

  • Who will be the President of Russia in 2016?
  • How many refugees will exit Syria next year?
  • How fast will Japan’s economy grow next quarter?
  • Will North Korea detonate another nuclear bomb in the next six months?  

Their studies show that:

  1. Individuals with above-average IQ scores tend to perform better on political forecasting tests, and
  2. Those who possess more relevant crystallized intelligence—for example, larger vocabularies and a more sophisticated understanding of current events and world affairs—outperform people with less.

Further, good political forecasters tend to be more open-minded. They are more willing to adjust their beliefs in light of new evidence and less susceptible to holding onto opinions dogmatically. The most accurate forecasters also possess a deterministic world view. They understand the world through the laws of probability, rather than belief in supernatural mechanisms, such as fate, destiny, or providence.

Good forecasters possess a larger appetite for intellectual challenges. They are drawn to problem solving and score higher on scales measuring one’s “need for cognition.” They have a competitive streak and become personally invested in getting the right answers. And they exhibit an active desire to outperform other test-takers.

According to the researchers, the interpersonal context in which forecasters make their predictions matters, as well. Elite forecasters are more likely to seek out conversation with other forecasters. They enjoy discussing their pet theories and are more likely to probe the knowledge of others.

Valerie Everett, Flickr
Source: Valerie Everett, Flickr

Although we probably will never be in Biff's position, incorporating these cognitive styles into our own lives should make us a bit better at predicting the future events that are most important to us.

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Mellers, B., Stone, E., Murray, T., Minster, A., Rohrbaugh, N., Bishop, M., ... & Tetlock, P. (2015). Identifying and Cultivating Superforecasters as a Method of Improving Probabilistic Predictions. Perspectives on Psychological Science,10(3), 267-281.

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