How Worried Should You Be About the Dire Predictions of Experts?

>> Monday

I was going through some old notes, and came across this Wall Street Journal article from 2010 by Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide. It seemed so relevant to today, I had to share it:

It's an American tradition: In the final weeks before an election, the airwaves are saturated with pundits and their bold predictions. This time around, they might be forecasting a decade of tea-party dominance, or the imminent comeback of the Democrats or a return to recession in the face of political deadlock. And as these pundits rattle off their reasons, they sound as if they know what they're talking about.

But do they? Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent 25 years trying to find out. He first got interested in the subject during the run-up to the 1984 presidential election, when dovish experts said Ronald Reagan's tough talk to the Soviets was needlessly antagonizing them, while hawkish experts were convinced that the Soviets needed to be aggressively contained. Mr. Tetlock began to monitor their predictions, and a few years later, he came to a sobering conclusion: Everyone was wrong. Both hawks and doves failed to anticipate the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost, even if the pundits now claimed to have seen it coming all along.

The dismal performance of the experts inspired Mr. Tetlock to turn his case study into an epic experimental project. He picked 284 people who made their living "commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends," including journalists, foreign policy specialists, economists and intelligence analysts, and began asking them to make predictions. Over the next two decades, he peppered them with questions: Would George Bush be re-elected? Would apartheid in South Africa end peacefully? Would Quebec secede from Canada? Would the dot-com bubble burst? In each case, the pundits rated the probability of several possible outcomes. By the end of the study, Mr. Tetlock had quantified 82,361 predictions.

How did the experts do? When it came to predicting the likelihood of an outcome, the vast majority performed worse than random chance. In other words, they would have done better picking their answers blindly out of a hat. Liberals, moderates and conservatives were all equally ineffective. Although 96% of the subjects had post-graduate training, Mr. Tetlock found, the fancy degrees were mostly useless when it came to forecasting.

The main reason for the inaccuracy has to do with overconfidence. Because the experts were convinced that they were right, they tended to ignore all the evidence suggesting they were wrong. This is known as confirmation bias, and it leads people to hold all sorts of erroneous opinions. Famous experts were especially prone to overconfidence, which is why they tended to do the worst. Unfortunately, we are blind to this blind spot: Most of the experts in the study claimed that they were dispassionately analyzing the evidence. In reality, they were indulging in selective ignorance, as they explained away dissonant facts and contradictory data. The end result, Mr. Tetlock says, is that the pundits became "prisoners of their preconceptions." And their preconceptions were mostly worthless.

What's most disturbing about Mr. Tetlock's study is that the failures of the pundit class don't seem to matter. We rely on talking heads more than ever, even though the vast majority of them aren't worth their paychecks. Our political discourse is driven in large part by people whose opinions are less accurate than a coin toss.

Mr. Tetlock proposes forming a nonpartisan center to track the performance of experts, just as we track the batting averages of baseball players. In the meantime, he suggests that we learn to ignore those famous pundits who are full of bombastic convictions. "I'm always drawn to the experts on television who stumble a little on their words," he adds. "For me, that's a sign that they're actually thinking about the question, and not just giving a canned answer. If an expert sounds too smooth, then you should probably change the channel."

As Mr. Tetlock points out, the future is impossible to predict. Even with modern polling, we can barely anticipate the outcome of an election that is just a few days away. If a pundit looks far beyond that time horizon, to situations with a thousand variables and very little real information to back up a prediction, we should stop listening and get out a quarter.

—Jonah Lehrer is the author of How We Decide. His column appears every other week in the WSJ.

Originally published in WSJ here: Beware Our Blind Seers.


It Doesn't Work If You Don't Do It

>> Sunday

Awhile back I published an article about visualizing what you want. Have you been visualizing what you want? Let me ask you this: Did you do it for awhile and noticed that things really started working well and then stopped doing it?

This happens because negative events compel your attention with more insistence than positive events, so as you move toward your goal and problems arise, you will tend to fixate on what is in your way and forget to imagine how you want things to go.

If you have made this mistake, you know what to do. Take some time and relax your body. Remember, you need to relax first because otherwise your imaginings can be tainted by anxiety. Then just have fun imagining how you would like things to turn out.

Imagine the long term, but also imagine how you would like specific events to turn out. Stop struggling and let your imagination do its magic. Read more about visualizing here.

Adam Khan is the author of Self-Help Stuff That Works and Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot.


Finding Common Ground During Election Season

>> Monday

Presidential elections are coming up. If that means uncomfortable conversations, or strife between you and family members or people you work with, or even just frustration at how members of the "opposing party" could possibly be so stupid, I've been doing something I'd like to share with you that creates a feeling of common ground rather than division.

It comes from an article in Scientific American Mind on the differences between liberals and conservatives, mostly about research by Jonathan Haidt, the author of The Righteous Mind. It seems counterintuitive that delving into the differences between liberals and conservatives would bring people together, but that's exactly what happens.

Several times now, when I've gotten into conversations with people about politics and the conversation started feeling divisive, I brought up some of Haidt's findings, and it shifted the conversation because his discoveries point to an important fact: Conservatives and liberals have a lot of common ground, and often share values. The priority of those values may be different, but they often both recognize that those values are important.

For example, in one study, when they showed people collages of photographs, conservatives' eyes spent more time looking at the more disturbing or unpleasant images in the collage. Many studies have demonstrated, in one way or another, that conservatives are more alert to threats, but that doesn't mean liberals are necessarily cavalier about safety and security. They may differ on their thresholds — differ on how bad it has to be before they are alarmed enough to do something about it — but they still care about it.

Conservatives are more anxious than liberals, generally speaking. That's one of the reasons they resist change. They want things to stay stable because change can be scary, and sometimes things change for the worse, not the better. Again, this is a sliding scale, not a black-and-white (or should I say "blue-and-red") division. Liberals also feel anxiety, just not as strongly as conservatives. And the feeling of safety versus anxiety is not fixed in any given person. In the SciAmMind article, the author writes:

When people feel safe and secure, they become more liberal; when they feel threatened, they become more conservative. Research conducted by Nail and his colleague in the weeks after September 11, 2001, showed that people of all political persuasions became more conservative in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

Haidt's work suggests that we all share six basic, inborn moral values, which are then influenced by culture and experience. The six values are:

1. Care for others.
2. Fairness and justice.
3. Liberty and freedom from oppression.
4. Loyalty and freedom from betrayal.
5. Respect for legitimate authority.
6. Aversion to harmful, disgusting things, foods, or actions.

Liberals tend to care more about some of these and less about others. Conservatives are just the opposite. What I think you'll find when you look at the studies is that the point of view of both right and left are necessary, rather than one being right and one being wrong, and that is an insight that can help bring us together.

So that's my recommendation for improving your mood during election season. When the conversation starts to feel divisive — even if you're talking to someone you agree with, but it starts feeling like "us versus them" — bring up some of this research. Just say something like, "I was reading an interesting article," and share some of the research findings. I think you'll find it improves your mood and the person's mood you're talking to. Maybe we can build more bridges between us this way.

Read the Scientific American Mind article here: Unconscious Reactions Separate Liberals and Conservatives.

Explore your own morals here: Test Your Morals.

Watch a TEDtalk with Jonathan Haidt: The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives.

And here's another video, this one of Bill Moyers talking with Haidt: How Do Conservatives and Liberals See the World?



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