How to Best the Experts and “Superforecast” the Future

A crystal ball for superforecasters

Forecasting the future never goes out of fashion. From the soothsayers in the empires of antiquity to the talking heads on cable TV, society values the ability to predict the future.

There’s a comfort in knowing what might happen that doesn’t just apply to political elections or economic downturns. On a personal level, we like knowing what the future has in store. Whether it’s the decision to get married, change jobs, or launch a product, we do our best to predict what will happen.

The problem is that most people are terrible at forecasting the future. Political pundits and financial gurus might be just as accurate divining fortunes from animal entrails, like the ancient augurs of the Roman Empire, as they are when giving gut-feeling predictions. Big events often come as a surprise to the people most involved with the issue. Everything from the financial crisis of 2007 to the fall of the Soviet Union were shocks to the experts dedicated to those issues.

If the experts who earn their living researching a subject fail so spectacularly, what hope do we have for ourselves to accurately predict the future?

Fortunately, there are ways to improve the decision-making process by learning from the rare “superforecasters.” These accurate prediction makers aren’t exceptionally intelligent compared to their peers (although they are quite smart). What sets them apart is that they possess some key traits that make them better than the rest in gauging what will actually happen in the future. We can learn from their way of thinking to finally expect the unexpected and know what the future holds for us.

So-Called Experts

Experts who professionally predict the future are, in the words of researcher Philip Tetlock, “roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee.”

Telock would know. He conducted a 20-year study where he asked pundits to predict geopolitical events for the next three to five years. The pundits’ predictions were dreadful and they failed to predict major world events with any sort of accuracy .

Tetlock takes the results from that study to the next level with his book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction.

Just as surprising as the experts’ poor performance are the excellent showings that come from various laymen. These superforecasters are housewives, blue-collar workers, and other types that typically aren’t a part of academia. They often had no formal training, yet were able to out-predict the experts by doing their own research.

A few years ago, he recruited a team of superforecasters to enter a U.S. government-sponsored prediction tournament. This unconventional team of non-experts – underdogs in the truest form – ended up winning the tournament.

His book, co-authored with Dan Gardner, explains why superforecasters are so good at what they do. 

Keep an Open Mind

Bias and stubbornness are difficult hurdles to overcome. Most people can’t get over it, and their preconceived notions cloud their predictions. Superforecasters might know little about a subject going in, and that in some ways can be an advantage. They can look at the numbers and come to a more accurate prediction.

The experts, meanwhile, will shrug their shoulders and say it’s impossible to predict because the event would be so unlikely or history making. Superforecasters, meanwhile, dive right in and look at the likelihood with a clear mind. Keep a similar mindset when thinking of your future.

Sweat the Details

Imagine you’re in the running for a promotion. In this case, it’s between you and an equally qualified colleague. You don’t know which way the decision will go, so you assign 50-50 odds of landing the promotion. So-called experts who make predictions often think in a similar way without delving into the practical details that help form a solid prediction.

Superforecasters do so well because they take every single little detail into account. They aren’t statisticians or mathematicians (yet they’re usually comfortable with numbers). Tetlock said in an interview that superforecasters use every relevant detail to determine the statistical probability as closely as possible.

Figuring that something has a 52 percent chance of happening instead of 50 percent is a modest but real statistical advantage. Slowly whittling away at 50-50 odds to find a more accurate probability is how they’re so much more accurate in their predictions.

When considering the odds for your promotion, think of every factor. The friendliness you have with the higher-ups and the success of your last project could tilt the odds in your favor despite how equal the odds seem on paper. The odds, you’ll find, won’t be a clean 50-50.

No Excuses

When not a single political pundit was able to predict the fall of the Soviet Union, Tetlock said, “everyone after the fact seemed to have an explanation that either appropriated credit or deflected blame.” Their predictions, the experts believed, were right. It’s just the event was so rare and unlikely that nobody could have predicted it.

That, of course, isn’t true. It’s also a bad way of thinking. Constantly justifying poor decisions and making excuses is as unappealing in the workplace and at home as it is in the political sphere. Superforecasters don’t make excuses. They just get better for their next prediction.

Have Some Luck

Tetlock acknowledges that good judgment is important, but luck has something to do with coming up with accurate predictions. In his estimation, superforecasters have about a 70/30 skill/luck split.

When you look at the best professional athletes and the most successful entrepreneurs, it’s safe to say that luck had something do with their accomplishments. While luck is an important factor, it’s still no replacement for talent and hard work.

Apply It to Your Life

Superforecters are a rare breed. They’re often not the loudest or the most forceful with their prediction, so they don’t get the same attention as the pundits. They are, however, more right than they are wrong. Remove the biases and take in all the relative facts. The smallest detail can help tilt a prediction towards accuracy. Nothing is too subtle to take into consideration.

When you’re deciding your next career move or a big purchase, go about the decision with the mindset of a superforecaster. Nothing can surprise you if you’ve already predicted it.

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