3 Secrets of Super-Forecasters

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Where will you be in five years? If you’ve ever been stumped by this classic interview and first date question, you would do well to steal the strategies of “super-forecasters.” These are average people who have superpower-like predictive skills, some of which are capable of forecasting future world events with better accuracy than CIA agents, according to recent research presented at last month’s meeting of the Association for Psychological Science. 

These super-forecasters are rare; one study suggested that they made up only 2 percent of a 2,000-person sample. And so far, research in this area has focused on matters of global importance, like the ability to predict the results of upcoming elections. But researchers say that anyone can adopt the strategies that make these prophetic few so effective:

  1. Be open-minded. Try not to go into decision-making with your mind already made up. Being able to see a problem from multiple perspectives is crucial in making accurate predictions of future events, researchers say. And seeing an issue from several different vantage points means you’ll often end up changing your mind.
  2. Do your homework. Your instinct can guide you in the right direction, but there are some things your gut just doesn’t know. For example, in the recent Psychological Science study, researchers asked the super-forecasters to rate the likelihood of questions like, “Will Robert Mugabe cease to be president of Zimbabwe by 30 September 2011?” The BBC write-up on the new research points out that it would be helpful to research the average length of time that dictators stay in power. In your own life, maybe you’re considering a new job, and you’d like to know how happy the new gig might make you. A super-forecaster would make an informed decision by, say, asking the interviewer or the HR rep about turnover rate at the new company.
  3. Confront your biases. Research has shown that we make better decisions about the future when we acknowledge the irrationality of the human mind. According to the BBC:

For instance, research has shown people tend to make better decisions if they are reminded of common pitfalls, such as the tendency to exaggerate the risk of particularly frightening events, like a terrorist attack; they could also remember to consider both the best and worst case scenarios of a situation, since that opens the mind to the full range of possibilities and helps to question your basic assumptions about the event. These tactics may seem obvious, but all the available evidence on human irrationality suggests they are easily forgotten – even by those who should know better.

In retrospect, these — especially the first two — are lessons we’re taught pretty early on. But in the adult world, it’s all too easy to forget them, to slip into careless, overly confident predictions based on little more than gut instinct. Super-forecasters know better, and that’s why they’re so impressive. Here’s hoping one of them uses their powers to give Susan Miller a run for her money.