Superforecasting

"Stepping outside ourselves and really getting a different view of reality is a struggle. But foxes are likelier to give it a try. Whether by virtue of temperament or habit or conscious effort, they tend to engage in the hard work of consulting other perspectives."

- Superforecasting, Page 79

We all make decisions based on our expectations of what will happen in the future. Our success is often contingent on the quality of our forecast. Unfortunately, people tend to be poor at predicting the future. Phillip E. Tetlock and his wife Barbara Mellers are the leaders of an extended forecasting study, The Good Judgment Project. Some participants in the project excel at forecasting; they outperform pundits and others paid for their predictions. Tetlock and Dan Gardner wrote Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction to explain how these superforecasters think. Forecasting is only one element of good judgment but learning to make better predictions is profoundly impactful in business, and many aspects of our personal life.

Tetlock uses the metaphor of foxes and hedgehogs to give us an effective mental model to adopt. It goes back to the Greek poet Archilochus who wrote, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” His framework anchors on learning to think like a fox and gather many perspectives instead of relying on a singular viewpoint like a hedgehog. The hedgehog’s perspective is intuitive because it requires little thought. This is the model that works for the media, K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid), it is supporting one perspective with a pile of reasons without considering other views. These stories are clear, black and white, reassuring, and supportive of popular views. The fox’s perspective is less attractive and requires practice. It is full of maybes and possibilities and unlikely to conclude anything is certain or impossible. The fox’s stories are complex because they aggregate many views, shades of gray, perhaps controversial perspectives. The thought process of foxes is hard work, but foxes are likely to arrive at the right answer.

Tetlock fully explains the elements of effective forecasting in the book. For this summary, I will focus on effectively questioning our judgment to begin thinking more like foxes.

The Golden Egg

Golden Egg: The biggest takeaway from the book

Question your judgment

"This is a very smart move. Researchers have found that merely asking people to assume their initial judgment is wrong, to seriously consider why that might be, and then make another judgment, produces a second estimate, which when combined with the first, improves accuracy almost as much as getting a second estimate from another person."
- Superforecasting, page 123

Considering multiple views is essential for good judgment. Unfortunately, we all have an internal bias. Our initial impression anchors on our cultural lens and our experience. When we decide to assume we are wrong, it opens up other possibilities in our mind. Tetlock mentions, in The Crack-Up F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” By generating and considering these opposing ideas, we arrive at our best decisions.

It takes practice to train our brains to accept that ideas sometimes coexist successfully in opposition to each other. They may not negate each other—both ideas could be right—and the answer may lie between the two lines. We need to realize the opposition is an illusion. Consider the iconoclast. Iconoclasts understand very little in our world is an absolute; policy and laws change regularly as do scientific ideas. Initially, iconoclastic ideas are often rejected because they challenge the status quo. However, these are the people who change the world because they can validate and integrate opposing views. They see the world differently, and those opposing views once accepted become the new normal.

Gem #1

An actionable way to implement the BIG takeaway (Golden Egg) into your life

Update your viewpoint gradually

"A forecaster who doesn’t adjust her views in light of new information won’t capture the value of that information, while a forecaster who is so impressed by the new information that he bases his forecast entirely on it will lose the value of the old information that underpinned his prior forecast. But the forecaster who carefully balances old and new captures the value in both – and puts it into her new forecast. The best way to do that is by updating often bit by bit."
- Superforecasting, page 169

We build on our knowledge. When learning a new skill, we gather information, process new ideas, and practice. As we practice, we pick up nuances, our mastery increases; our knowledge builds, and we fine tune our new ability. Eventually, we gain competency. The same is true when we gather information to make a prediction about what will happen in the future. If we make adjustments as we go, we are more likely to see the relevance or irrelevance of less significant information and be more capable of identifying how it will affect the outcome.

If we take one look at a large amount of information and do not revisit the facts and consider the new information, we will only be capable of a hedgehog perspective. To gain a fox’s insight we need to gather information in smaller increments, consider more perspectives and thoughtfully evaluate each element over time. We need to be willing to maintain mental flexibility and compensate for factors that may influence our view. For example, our view automatically anchors on our first impression and our emotions influence our decisions.

Gem #2

An actionable way to implement the BIG takeaway (Golden Egg) into your life

Recognizing and correcting mistakes is a strength

"The humility required for good judgment is not self-doubt – the sense that you are untalented, unintelligent, or unworthy. It is intellectual humility. It is a recognition that reality is profoundly complex, that seeing things clearly is a constant struggle, when it can be done at all, and that human judgment must therefore be riddled with mistakes. This is true for fools and geniuses alike."
- Superforecasting, page 228

Often when in a position of leadership, we fear humility is a weakness, and we feel ineffective unless we are infallibly sure footed. Doubting our conclusions is not the same as doubting ourselves. Hesitating in deliberation is not the same as hesitating in execution. Many effective leaders and organizations take the time to evaluate a decision but are quick to act. We should have confidence in our ability to arrive at the correct decision, but with a recognition that it could be wrong and we continuously consider other viewpoints with a willingness to change our position. When we change our position, we again act decisively. Sometimes those we lead are resistant to change, but we should not let that resistance create an inflexibility that prevents us from correcting our direction and moving forward.

One last word of caution, it is easy to be seduced by shortcuts easy answers. Our culture values simplicity because it often increases our speed and therefore apparent productivity. This may lead to making the same judgment errors repeatedly if we fail to complete meaningful practice specific to our work and seek qualified feedback.  I’ll end with the following quote:

“By the way there are no shortcuts. … research shows that judgment calibrated in one context transfers poorly, if at all, to another. … To get better at a certain type of forecasting that is the type of forecasting you must do – over and over again, with good feedback telling you how your training is going, and a cheerful willingness to say, ‘Wow, I got that one wrong. I’d better think about why.’”

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Ingrid Urgolites

ABOUT Ingrid Urgolites

I work for Citigroup in operations. I have a varied background, and I enjoy service-oriented work. In addition to business, I have a keen interest in food and nutrition, and I have been vegetarian or vegan my whole life...
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