Cognitive biases to be aware of in futurist thinking

Hedgehog and Fox Finger Puppets by Linda Brown

Hedgehog and fox finger puppets
by Linda Brown (Etsy shop owner)

“No serious futurist deals in predictions”. These are the famous words of Alvin Toffler in his seminal book Future Shock from 1971. Instead, future studies usually describe a number of plausible futures pointing at different directions for the world or society. Never predicting, just analyzing uncertainty and complexity. However, the topics of these scenarios for the future are constructed from ‘contemporary’ thinking. Our thinking starts with the trends and developments of today. So every futurist should be aware of cognitive heuristics and biases that might distort our thinking. At least two recent books about foresight, Future babble: how to stop worrying and love the unpredictable, by Dan Gardner and The black swan by Nassim Nicolas Taleb go in some detail to describe the mental biases that futurist have run into time and again. Here are the most salient biases:

The availability bias explains that people have the idea that whatever is recalled easily must be very common. Current world affairs and especially disasters are on the top of our minds. The same applies to movies themes. Futurists might be inclined to overstate these in their scenarios at the cost of the less visible developments.

The anchoring bias is also what makes it difficult not to be influenced too much by current affairs. In the future it might be all very different. Gardner points at how futurists saw Japan, which was in the eighties considered to become ever more powerful, while no one at that time mentioned the rise of China as economic super power. Now, it might be difficult to see the economic power of Chine crumble again in future times.

The confirmation bias states that people tend to confirm their beliefs. This bias could be at play when people have a strong belief of what the future will look like. For instance, if they are certain of a world full of hunger, with a major energy crisis, then they might see only signs that go in that direction. The same applies to people who are absolutely sure that we will enter a world of abundance and see the full merging of man and machine to celebrate this abundance with unleveled cognitive potential.

We also observe here the confidence bias, which works on top of the confirmation bias. It contributes to overconfidence, despite of counter evidence. People who are confident of their view are seen as very reliable persons. However, they might just selectively refer to information that supports their view.

The narrative fallacy points at the basis human tendency of telling stories. That is what we are, story telling creatures. That’s what we do in scenarios and in trend presentations. However, the future is likely to unfold in different directions than in our stories. Therefore, sound bites can be tricky, if we tend to stick to them.

Both Taleb and Garner build on the work of Philip Tetlock, who distinguished two types of predictors: the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog refers to the expert who focuses on a single event or image of the future. The fox is much more cautious and aware of the uncertainty and complexity of future developments. The fox is not comfortable with predicting, and will always emphasize alternative pathways to the future. In line with Karl Popper’s view, he will humbly search for evidence that may falsify his beliefs. He will develop introspective skills to overcome the aforementioned biases.

Futurists needs these introspective moments. Even though our audience is fond of experts who confidently explain what’s going to happen next, futurists should not fall for the temptation to tell the future. Instead, one of their roles is to confront people with alternative world views and to make them consider possibilities that they wouldn’t think of. That’s how futurists help to overcome these very same biases that we all tend to fall for.

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