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New year predictions – after death and taxes, it’s all guesswork

  • Written by Gareth Dunlop, Associate UX Consultant, Fathom.

    It’s the time of year when blogs and other social media dare to dream what the next twelve months might bring. Despite Benjamin Franklin's accurate assertion that life’s only certainties are death and taxes, many experts will be prophesying many things across many topics and the subject matter of this column – digital design and leadership – will be no exception.

    This author therefore feels emboldened to join the flock of fortune-tellers by adding a prediction to the growing pile. It is that all new year predictions will be wrong, and the ones which are right will be so because of luck, because the future has already arrived, or because there will be so many predictions (including contradictory ones) that some of them are bound to be true.

    Put a fiver on it. It’s the safest money you’ll invest this year.

    The elephant in the room is that predictions are worthless because we are terrible at making them. We are barely better than chance.

    At the time of writing the football World Cup 2022 has just completed, with romanticists and Argentinians alike delighted to see Lionel Messi lifting the Copa Mundial on his fifth and final attempt at the age of 35. It was a fascinating tournament, with a breath-taking final and many surprise results along the way. It is worth pausing for a moment to look at the shocks; see them outlined below (pre-competition FIFA world rankings in brackets):

    Saudi Arabia (51st) beat Argentina (3rd) 2 – 1

    Cameroon (43rd) beat Brazil (1st) 1 – 0

    Australia (38th) beat Denmark (10th) 1 – 0

    Tunisia (30th) beat France (4th) 1 – 0

    Morocco (22nd) beat Belgium (2nd) 2 – 0, Spain (10th) 3 – 0 (on penalties) and Portugal (8th) 1 – 0

    What all of these results have in common is that no credible pundit predicted any of them. Before each match no one had identified a run of form, a unique approach to strategy or a particular playing formation which would give the underdog a chance of beating their more illustrious opponent. So, it seems that pundits can’t do surprises, they can just do obvious.

    With football punditry it was ever thus.

    In 1995 Alan Hansen famously said of the all-conquering Manchester United team of the 90s and 00s “you can’t win anything with kids”.

    In 2016 Gary Lineker famously had to come good on his promise that he would present Match of the Day in his underpants if Leicester won the Premier League title after having previously Tweeted “Claudio Ranieri? Really?” when the Italian was appointed as manager a year previously.

    The reason that pundit predictions are notoriously inaccurate is that they are based on the flawed premise that the universe is inevitable and linear which of course it isn’t. This erroneous assumption is one of several biases which make us so awful at predicting outcomes ahead of time.

    There is good news in all of this, perhaps counterintuitively. By identifying and naming these biases we can better prepare ourselves for the future.

    Hindsight bias

    This bias reflects our tendency to recall the past as being more inevitable than it actually was. One can understand why Trump rose to power in 2016 but it wasn’t inevitable that he would. One can understand why Brexit occurred in the same year, but it wasn’t inevitable. Just because something can be rationalised logically, doesn't mean that it was inevitable that it would happen. This is further exacerbated by the media’s need to be right, meaning that when Brexit occurs or Trump gains power, there is a legion of “we warned about this all along” type articles claiming that the author had a unique insight which meant they weren’t at all surprised by the outcome.

    We overcome hindsight bias by recognising both the past and the future as more random and chaotic than we first imagine.

    Overconfidence bias

    This bias refers to a person's subjective confidence in his or her judgments being greater than the objective accuracy of those judgments. It manifests itself in lots of familiar ways. We over-rank ourselves, rating our own professional, sporting and personal performances higher than they are. We kid ourselves that we have more control over the future than we really have. Executives consistently underestimate the time required to complete projects. We know less, take longer and are worse at influencing future events than we think. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we are ignorant about huge swathes of factors which will influence the future.

    We overcome overconfidence bias by working harder to better know our place in the universe, which (sometimes) frees us from our more grandiose thoughts.

    Optimism bias

    This bias describes our tendency to believe in future outcomes which are in our favour. It’s why we think our favourite sports team will do better than they actually will. Ahead of a rugby match you might hear a friend say “my heart says Ireland will win but my head says South Africa will win” which reflects our tendency for optimistic predictions. Optimism bias is one of the reasons we underinsure our assets, why we don’t put enough savings aside for a rainy day and why we make overly risky investments.

    We overcome optimism bias by recognising the lie which says you can be anything you want to be. It can also be overcome by playing devil’s advocate on your own ideas.

    Salience bias

    The salience bias describes people’s tendency to focus on things that seem like a big deal while ignoring other things that may be more worthy of their mental energy. At the time of writing, Strep A (a common type of bacteria) has tragically killed 94 children in the UK in 2022. This is much higher than normal and as a result has featured heavily on the news across radio, TV and online in recent months. However in the same period 291 children were killed in car accidents which passes with barely a mention. Despite many people’s morbid fear of flying, it’s also the case that you have a statistically higher chance of being killed on the journey to the airport than you have being killed on the plane.

    We overcome salience bias by acknowledging that we have it and arming ourselves with the data needed to correct it.

    In short the world is noisy and ambiguous and random and chaotic and our small brains simply haven’t evolved far enough to properly understand it.

    When it comes to predicting the future therefore, recognising this gives us a much-needed starting point for planning.

    Because our inaccurate predictions are predictably and consistently awry.

    And once you recognise that, and the reasons behind it, you can do something about it. In fact, all of design thinking theory is focused on that very activity.

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