Who Is Best at Predicting the Future?

I’ve come across an interesting study about a correlation between cognitive styles and accuracy in predicting the future. The study is from Philip Tetlock, Professor of Leadership at UC Berkeley who built on Isaiah Berlin’s theory about foxes and hedgehogs. Put simply, foxes are lateral thinkers,  hedgehogs are linear thinkers, and it is foxes who are better at predicting the future.

Tetlock contends that the fox–the thinker who knows many little things, draws from an eclectic array of traditions, and is better able to improvise in response to changing events–is more successful in predicting the future than the hedgehog, who knows one big thing, toils devotedly within one tradition, and imposes formulaic solutions on ill-defined problems.

This insight makes sense, that foxes with their ability to hold multiple points of view are better positioned to see the future. But there’s a twist. Hedgehogs, with their certainty, tend to be more confident and thus convincing to a crowd. And foxes, with all of their “It could be this way or it could be that way” internal debate, tend to express less confidence and are less convincing to a crowd. Stewart Brand sums this up nicely here:

Bottom line… The political expert who bores you with a cloud of “howevers” is probably right about what’s going to happen. The charismatic expert who exudes confidence and has a great story to tell is probably wrong.

As you may know, I’m interested in “unlikely leaders” and foxes fall into that slot. They express doubt while the hedgehogs express confidence. So my question for all of us is this: How might we train ourselves to listen to foxes, to embrace their expressions of doubt so that we can better understand where we’re going.

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You Put Your Tech in My Social Science

The other day a friend of mine, a technology entrepreneur, said to me at lunch, ‘I’ve been reading your posts about social science and technology. Something that stands out to me is that these social scientists define problems really well but don’t offer solutions.’

I giggled. He’s right. In fact, I have a new friend — an anthropologist who teaches design. And she admitted this to me just a few weeks ago, ‘We do great field research and map problems really well,’ she said, ‘But we never build anything.’

On the flip side, there’s a similar critique about technology. The critique is that technologists are extremely solutions driven. So much so that they often lose sight of the problem that they had set out to solve.

Kodak’s focus on building higher and higher resolution cameras in the face of digital photography is an example of this phenomenon. The opportunity there wasn’t about image quality. It was about the immediacy of processing and distributing images and how that immediacy inspired people to share pictures with their friends in a new way (online). Sure, hindsight is 20/20. But I wonder what would have happened if they had taken their social scientists a bit more seriously.

So I’m interested in this gap — the gap between the deep problem framing that’s going on in the humanities and the elegant solutions being built in the technologies. My gut tells me we should bridge that gap and my work experience from the past ten years tells me that it’s really hard.

What do you think? Should we build a bridge? If so, how? And if we do, what might be the benefit?

“Perhaps, the way past the problem of human unpredictability may be to work with it and through it rather than to ignore it.” DR