Nobody knows what the future will bring, but most of us think about the future all the time. Will we succeed in our goals? Will we fail? Will the world fall apart? Is the Singularity coming soon?
But humans are notoriously bad predictors. We massively overrate the likelihood of remote possibilities, and pretend that near-certainties will never happen. We are masters of self-delusion, especially when it comes to imagining what's coming next. We're all wrong about the future — but some of us are wrong in a self-defeating fashion that's likely to make our personal futures worse.
We talked to experts about the most common — and destructive — mistakes people make in thinking about the future. Find out which ways of thinking about the future could hold you back.
Top Image: Haywire Media/Shutterstock.
This is a huge one. People have a really hard time visualizing futures that are different from what's already happened, says neurologist Tali Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain.
Tali Sharot's new book, The Optimism Bias, argues that the human brain has an in-built tendency to discount negative information about the future. This is probably a survival adaptation: Optimistists live longer, are healthier, and have more drive to reach their goals.
"It's something you see again and again," says Sharot, "When you give people negative information about the future, they don't really use that information to change their beliefs. But when you give them unexpectedly positive information about the future, they can immediately uptake that information and change their beliefs."
The only danger with irrational optimism is that people won't take proper precautions. They underestimate their chances of getting divorced, so they don't sign a prenuptial agreement. They underestimate their chances of getting cancer, so they don't sunscreen on. "I ride my bike, and I don't bother to put a helmet on," says Sharot.
And that means that even when you present them with evidence that the future will be different — for example, that we're going to run out of oil — they tend to discount it. Now that people have gone through 9/11 and the financial crisis, it's easy for us to imagine another huge terrorist attack or financial meltdown happening in the future — but we tend to discount futures that are different from what we've already witnessed.
It's so hard to imagine something so different from what we're used to, that people can't even vividly think about that. And if they can't vividly imagine it, it's hard for them to think that that is actually likely. There is a very strong connection between how vividly you can imagine things and how likely you think they are.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman helped to pioneer the idea that tend to think that outcomes we can visualize are more likely, says Sharot.
In general, "when people imagine the future, they imagine only one or two scenarios, the ones they can imagine most easily," says Sharot. "Based on those two scenarios, they make assumptions." Meanwhile, if you ask a computer to simulate something, such as a war, the computer will simulate thousands of scenarios, and come up with statistics about which outcome is most likely — but the human brain doesn't do that. "We don't necessarily come up with the likeliest scenario, we just come up with the one that's easiest to imagine" — which tend to be the ones which we've already lived through.
Just as many people believe the future will be just like the past, many people also believe that everything goes in cycles. History is a wheel that keeps turning, and the same events will recur over and over. Says Lorenzo DiTommaso, chair of the Department of Religion at Concordia University in Montreal:
Recurrent patterns and regular cycles abound in nature. Tides ebb and flow, the moon waxes and wanes, the seasons change, and the sun rises and sets every day. But time and history are linear. So subscribing to the notion that "everything goes in cycles" is to entertain a false reality, however comforting it might be. That's not necessarily harmful, but it can be, especially if a belief in a fixed future causes one to make injurious or destructive decisions in the present.
"The most harmful belief about the future is that talent and intelligence are fixed traits, and those who were born with high ability will succeed in the future whereas those who were born with low ability will not," says Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive scientist and personality psychologist at New York University.
If you believe that talent is a fixed trait — you either have it or you don't — then you'll take any past failure as proof of future disaster, and give up. Kaufman says that people who believe "their intelligence was fixed at birth and will not change" tend to be defensive and "sabotage their opportunities for learning, eventually confirming their belief that intelligence can't be changed." This becomes a vicious circle.
Meanwhile, people who believe that they can increase their intelligence through effort "don't take failure as an indication of their innate worth, and learn more from their experiences, because they are more open to criticism and growth," says Kaufman. Those people tend to succed more, over time, than people who believe that intelligence is set in stone.
And a similar thing probably happens on a larger scale, says Hugo Mercier, a postdoctoral fellow in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Pennsylvania: People who believe the world can't be changed are less likely to change the world.
Actually, this is not so much a myth about the future as it is an unhelpful way of thinking about the future. A recent study by researchers at New York University's Motivation Lab found that people who spend too much time imagining a wonderful future tend to have less energy to achieve their goals. Researchers Gabriele Oettingen and Heather Barry Kappes studied the systolic blood pressure of people who visualized a "beautiful fantasy" about the future, and found that those people had less energy — and thus, less energy to get things done. The brain sees the fantasy of success as being the same thing as actual success.
As social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson puts it:
When people indulge a little too much in their fantasies about the future, daydreaming rather than thinking about the obstacles that stand in the way of making their desired future actually happen, it saps their motivation and energy. So it's important to not spend too much of your time thinking ONLY about how great the future will be - you've got to couple that with thoughts about how the work will get done.
You might not think of prejudice as being a prediction about the future, but it is. Often, we believe that it's okay to persecute certain groups of people because they're marked for a terrible fate no matter what we do, says DiTommaso. The most obvious example is the belief that some people are bound to go to Hell and suffer eternal torment, which can be used to justify discriminating against them in the present. But this principle is applied in lots of cases. As DiTommaso puts it:
Declarative statements about the future have a nasty way of being applied to the present. For example, they are often used to create or maintain a social climate that legitimates policies such as dehumanisation and exclusion by assimilation or elimination.
So unpleasant predictions about the fate of certain groups of people aren't just nasty, they can help make life worse for those groups in the present.
Okay, so it could well be true that the world will end in 2012, or the Singularity will come along and change everything next month. But neither of these outcomes is all that likely. And the more time you spend imagining that something huge will come out of the blue and change the world, the less time you're spending actually taking positive action.
DiTommaso has studied apocalyptic ideas — his next book is called The Architecture of Apocalypticism — and he says that the old-school Biblical apocalypse is similar to Marxist ideas that the Revolution is coming soon. These sorts of ideas stem from the belief that "the world is a terrible place and the end is coming soon." But believing that a huge global change will come, no matter what any of us does individually, is an example of having a "Daddy complex," says DiTommaso. The world's problems are too serious to offload responsibility like that. And DiTommaso warns: "any notion of history that axiomatically includes a fixed future tends to limit human potential."
Believing that there's some huge event coming that will change everything "is an example of having what psychologists call an 'external locus of control,'" says Halvorson, author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. She explains:
In other words, you feel that things will happen to you, rather than that you will make them happen. It may be nice on some level to not feel responsible for your own future, but in general it leaves people disengaged, helpless and less likely to take action. Believing that you are in control of what happens to you (for the most part) makes you happier, healthier (literally - as in fewer illnesses and faster recoveries), and more effective.
Some of us grow up feeling like we're helpless — and believing that a huge future is bearing down on us can only make those feelings worse. But cognitive behavioral therapy "is remarkably effective at helping people to rewrite their assumptions about the way the world works" and gain more agency, says Halvorson.
DiTommaso also suggests trying to reason with people who believe in apocalyptic predictions:
Doomsday predictions represent the logical end of a series of propositions. Changing the input might change the output. Is it reasonable to suppose that history revolves around one's self or special group? Is it reasonable to think that modern, critical, scientific rationality works everywhere, except when it conflicts with one's special faith in a belief system? Is it reasonable to believe that despite a 100% past failure rate, the next doomsday prediction will be accurate?
All of the images in this article below the fold, via Claudia Gabriela Marques Vieira, aka FuturePresent on Flickr.