Think about the turbulent events in recent history. Did you predict the election of Barack Obama as a Democratic candidate or did you lean towards Hillary Clinton? And with the Arab Spring, could you guess the revolution at the first signs of dissatisfaction? Were you able to anticipate the crisis in Ukraine?
If your answer to those questions is yes, you could be a «super forecaster», one of the people who can predict world events with incredible accuracy.
This has nothing to do with reading the future in the tea grounds and you don’t have to be a seasoned political analyst.
Some superpredictors are ordinary people, from all walks of life, capable of astonishingly insightful judgments.
In recent years, psychologists have discovered a number of hidden mental talents, abilities that may go unnoticed by the very people who possess them.
For example, there are the «super-recognizers», those who can remember people’s faces even after having seen them only once and years ago.
And also the «super-tasters», those who perceive the flavor in a very intense way, or the «super-memorizers», who naturally remember the events of almost every day of their lives.
Genetics or learning?
These talents may be largely due to our genes, while the ability to predict should, in theory, be the result of experience and learning.
However, political experts are often bad at interpreting what the crystal ball says.
Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania found that they tend to get their predictions more right than if the answers were random.
«Chimpanzees throwing darts at the possible results could have achieved almost as good results as those of the experts.» This is how the political scientist summarized the conclusions of his study to the American newspaper The New York Times.
Of course, the military intelligence agencies kept abreast of the investigation.
Inspired, in part, by one of the Tetlock reports, the US agency for research projects IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity) sponsored the Good Judgment project (Good Judgment, in Spanish), led by the political scientist himself, with the aim of to seek new approaches in political predictions.
In the form of a contest, the agency recruited thousands of participants from all walks of life to test their prediction skills through questions.
Among other questions, they were asked: «Will Robert Mugabe remain President of Zimbabwe on September 30, 2011?» and «Will Greece become a member of the European Union on June 1, 2012?»
Rather than simply answering yes or no, since these cannot reflect the uncertainty inherent in real life, they were asked to estimate the probability that each event would occur.
After three years of competition, the Tetlock team published some of their results in the magazine Psychological Science and during the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, in San Francisco last July.
One of the main goals was to see if some of the forecasters were consistently good at their predictions.
So after a year Tetlock checked the results of more than 2,000 participants and diverted 2% of them, the so-called «super tipsters», to form with them the teams that would compete in the next phase of the quiz.
By the end of the second year of the study, their performance was up to four times more accurate than that of the other participants.
Although experience in politics may have helped some, the participants came from a wide variety of professions.
«One of the best predictors was a pharmacist,» Tetlock said.
As might be expected, these elite predictors tended to score better on intelligence measures than the other participants.
However, they shared another trait: open-mindedness.
In everyday life, an open mind can be confused with a progressive ideology, but in psychology it reflects the ease of dealing with uncertainty.
Based on this, open-minded people tend to be able to see all sides of the problem, which seems to help predictors overcome their own preconceptions when receiving new data.
«They need to change their minds quickly and often,» Tetlock explained.
Another common trait of effective predictors is self-awareness, or understanding of one’s own weaknesses.
Even the most experienced predictors can fall into some traps, so Tetlock’s team decided to test whether with just an hour of training they could avoid their most common mistakes.
Techniques to avoid bias
He’s not very willing to go into much detail about the methods, lest that influence future results, but the researcher noted that predictors often start out by taking an «inside» perspective on the problem.
For example, when considering whether Mugabe will remain in power, they begin by looking for signs of discontent in the country.
However, the study suggests that more accurate predictions can be made by stopping to think and consulting historical data.
In Mugabe’s case, a good idea would be to consider the average length of an authoritarian government and then refine that estimate.
Other strategies contemplated by the research are aimed at reducing cognitive biases.
For example, the study has shown that people tend to make better decisions if they are reminded of the most common misconceptions, such as the exaggeration of particularly terrifying events.
It also proposes to consider the best and worst possible outcomes of a situation, as this opens the mind to all possibilities and helps to question basic ideas about the event.
These tactics may seem obvious, but all the available evidence on human irrationality suggests that they are easily forgotten, even by those who should know the subject better.
Tetlock is also looking for ways to exploit the collective intelligence of super forecasters.
Many psychologists believe that experts who work in teams perform worse than those who work individually, as they end up reinforcing each other’s biases.
«It is the madness of the masses,» Tetlock said.
However, with a little training on how to criticize other people’s points of view and how to respond positively to other perspectives, participants achieved better results.
The team of researchers hopes that these discoveries may eventually change the way governments make decisions.
«This is not about the business of prophecy, it is the business of clarity,» said the political scientist. «We want to increase the intellectual honesty of the predictions.»
The quiz put forward by the researchers could also help find ways for everyone to improve their prediction skills in their everyday lives.
Do you need to make an important decision about your future? Accept the uncertainty and accept your biases. Although, of course, if you are a super tipster you probably already saw these tips coming.