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Behavioural Science

How To Predict The Future

The concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy is nothing new. In 1948, Robert K. Merton formalised the idea of a false prediction that causes itself to become true: the prediction’s very existence promotes new behaviour which then causes that future to come into being.

But it’s 2016 now, and we’re in a climate of radical change due to the Internet Age reaching a point of maturity – social media is integrated into most of developed society; we are used to receiving the bulk of our information in short snippets on our phone screens; echo chambers are more influential than ever due to questionable content-restricting and enhancing algorithms. So it begs the question; are self-fulfilling prophecies more likely to occur, and if so, should we be worried?

At the recent New Scientist Live conference in London, Editor-in-Chief Sumit Paul-Choudhury spoke on how best to think about the future, describing journalists as those who have “the first pass at what ends up in history books”. He thinks of predicting the future as being a creative act – you build up statistical simulations of the world in your mind, and allow yourself to explore said simulations to tease out which is most plausible and desirable. It’s this kind of thinking which pushes the real creation in the best-case direction. He says: “Looking to the future is part of being human – we’re priming ourselves for future eventualities.”


You can think of science fiction in the same vein: as a creative method of exploring beyond technical capability and into the social, ethical and environmental consequences of particular scenarios. It’s like a thought experiment in the form of entertainment. From space travel and bridging other dimensions to genetic editing and different forms of government, science fiction has investigated our future multiple times over.

And there are times where we get it right – Jules Verne proposed the idea of propelling spaceships using light in ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ in 1865; nowadays solar panels are used both in space and on Earth. You could argue that if humans are capable of imagining something, we are capable of building it – so science fiction can be a good place to start when working out what’s to come next.

It’s true that we need to engage in order to shape. Discussion and exploration of a topic is key in working out which is the best course of action, particularly when it comes to world-changing ideas. As a society, we should be questioning the experts, we should all play big roles in deciding the course of humanity, and we should be able to access these conversations as simply as posting a Facebook status.

But are we accidentally creating futures we may not want? Are our educated guesses, which run through the media, heightened by brands and influencers and popularised through the ease of accessibility for the public, the right ones to be focussing on? Are we investing too much in the wrong ideas, causing them to come into being, purely based on hype and the self-perpetuating nature of the Internet?

Matthew Salganik and Duncan Watts conducted a study in 2013 where they investigated the effects that hyped ‘wrong information’ had on people’s behaviour. They created a music market where they inverted the true popularity of songs by unknown bands – so the ‘worst’ songs showed high download numbers and the ‘best’ songs had low apparent popularity. They found that perceived – but initially false – popularity became real over time.

Oxford University looked into the effects of social media on Brexit, finding that as the Leave campaign started earlier in building momentum online, they were able to dominate the conversation despite their supporter numbers being initially quite low. “Using the Internet, the Leave camp was able to create the perception of wide-ranging public support for their cause that acted like a self-fulfilling prophecy, attracting many more voters to back Brexit.”

It’s clear that problems can arise when hype grows exponentially in the wrong direction – depending, of course, on how you feel about the EU, or how good you are at producing music.

Despite our knowing the pitfalls of wrong predictions and misdirected hype, the media industry’s obsession with being on top of what’s new, what’s next and what’s popular routinely goes unchecked. Marketers are flocking to social media analytics tools to ‘listen’ to what’s happening so they can have their clients jump onto the trend bandwagon. Agencies are outsourcing their innovation discovery to several companies claiming to be on top of what technologies and startups are set to be the ‘next’ Uber, Facebook or Airbnb. News publications are publishing fast and at scale without checking all the facts, in a bid to get the biggest piece of the audience pie first.

There is real pressure for brands to have a say on what they believe the future is to hold, and they are sharing these ideas at SXSW and CES; online and in print; within products and services. But what if we’re predicting the future all wrong, and causing it to become the worse version of itself? What if our readiness to make quick predictions based on perceived popularity is actually what’s making these things popular in the first place, as opposed to their true value?

Frankenstein made us think that genetic modification is wrong; film plots based on nuclear disaster convince us that the N word is synonymous with destruction. Both are forces for good as well as evil – but only one side of the story ‘catches on’. It quickly becomes too late to consider the ‘other route’ when an idea takes flight.

As Paul-Choudry said, we need to think about the future more constructively. We need to think in terms of scenarios to tease out the deep underlying tensions; we need to study what has happened in the past when predictions have been made and hype has occurred; we need to remember that advancements are not all black and white in terms of their morality.

In our world of media democratisation, the influencers have a responsibility to be thorough in their bandwagon choices. It’s not just a case of looking daft in front of a large audience when a prediction is made or a trend is incorporated – the fate of the future may very well be at stake.

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