When it comes to the future, do we just want someone to follow?

confidence-tricksterI’ve complained in the past about the various efforts at predicting the future of this, that and the other.  Many of these glimpses into the crystal ball attempt to tell the reader how their field will look in 10, 20 or even 30 years time.

Of course, such forecasting is largely a waste of time.  Not only is it extremely unlikely for such claims to ever be held to account, but life changes so quickly that they also have an extremely low probability of being right.

A confidence trick

Yet such forecasts remain popular, and a recent study provides us with a glimpse into just why that is.  The key is all about the confidence of your delivery.

“When a forecaster predicts that something has a high likelihood of happening, consumers infer that the forecaster is more confident in her prediction, that she is basing the prediction on more in-depth analysis, and that she is more trustworthy,” the authors say. “The prediction is also judged to be more accurate.”

Across eight studies, the authors explored the way predictions are treated, whether of a sporting nature, financial nature or even whether a book will or won’t be published.  In each of them, the forecasters were asked to make their predictions with either a 70% certainty or a 30% certainty.

It emerged that people responded very differently depending of the level of certainty involved, both in terms of how they regarded the prediction but also the forecaster.

For instance, when the forecaster was strongly confident about their prediction, they were deemed to be both more confident and trustworthy.  They were also believed to have conducted more research, which in turn made their prediction more trustworthy.

Why we like to believe

The authors suggest this is because people tend to focus much more on the specific outcome predicted rather than the possible alternatives.  So, for instance, they’d focus on one team winning the game rather than on the possibility of the other team doing so.

“These results have practical implications. It could be, for instance, that consumers prefer information outlets such as news programs and websites that make higher predictions. Thus, political pundits, meteorologists, and stock analysts may want to highlight their predictions when they offer a higher forecast for an event, as a way to help build their reputation,” the authors rather depressingly conclude.

Suffice to say, the research didn’t look at the longer term picture and explore how people respond once the outcome of the prediction is known.  You would like to think that once the prediction has played out, the reputation of the forecaster would be modified according to their success.

Of course, when you’re making predictions 20 years into the future, that reality check isn’t possible, in which case it appears that being extremely confident in the crazy predictions you make is enough to pull the wool over people’s eyes.




3 thoughts on “When it comes to the future, do we just want someone to follow?

  1. I suspect that there is an awful lot of that involved. The whole field of social proof is us palming off responsibility for decision making onto others. This is no different really.

  2. Comes back to your previous post about conforming or following the herd doesn't it? Most people are followers rather than leaders.

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