When do you have to predict the future? I’m not talking about the kind of tiny and important predictions we make every day like predicting whether we will get hit by a car if we cross a highway during rush hour, or whether our amorous proposals will be accepted or rejected. I’m talking about seemingly more complicated predictions. Perhaps you’re planning for an adventurous life change or launching a new venture or product. How do you personally consider what might happen? Do you rely on experts within your circle of friends, company or industry? Do you rely on forecasting charts and numbers? How about your momma’s sage advice? Do you rely on your intuition?

Photo credit Xurble

Photo credit Xurble

What is the most common method you use to predict the future? What percentage of the time do you use that method to predict? 100% of the time? 63% of the time? 37% of the time?

It turns out we humans are pretty sucky at predicting the future. There are a lot of theories and psychological reasons for this–cognitive biases and such–but it turns out that curiosity may be a secret weapon to combat this suckiness.

There are scientifically helpful ways to improve your predictive powers. Jack Stoll, Katherine Milkman and John Payne discuss this in the Harvard Business Review, May, 2015, for example. Dan Gardner of Future Babble authorship also provides helpful tools. Curiosity just might be your true crystal ball.

When planning your future to help you make important decisions (like creating estimates of how many new clients you’ll have, or how much your adventures will cost you, or how many products you’ll sell, or what is the likelihood that your project will be successful), these curiosity-driven strategies will increase your predictive powers. The first three are steps to help you lubricate your mind for curiosity and prepare you to get closer to predictive genius. The last four are tricks to help make your predictions more accurate.

But wait! Grab a helpful hint: All of these strategies require you to do one thing first–elevate curiosity ahead of criticism, judgment and fear. You’ll have plenty of time to get to those later–they seem to always wait for us.

Get Curious About What Exactly You’re Predicting

What are you actually predicting? Be as specific as possible. This will help you avoid applying the wrong prediction to a big decision or mushing several predictions into one. For example, let’s say you predict that traveling the world for a year will cost you a net of $7,000 (out of pocket expenses minus earnings from travel writing). This would be conflating at least two separate predictions (how much your expenses will be and how much you can earn from travel writing). For this example, there should ideally be (at least) two separate prediction processes. You can probably think of more predictions that could be scrubbed through this curiosity process in order to make an even better decision.

-Write down specifically what you’re predicting, but wait for a wee bit to write down your actual prediction.
-How important is it for this prediction to be accurate? Pick one: Very important, Sort of important, Not really important.
-Why is this prediction as important as you indicate?

This process will help you know how much effort you need to put into your prediction. For example, if the prediction isn’t that important to your decision-making process, your intuition will probably suffice, and you can skip the rest of this and go drink a delicious smoothie. If it’s really important that you get a more accurate prediction, spend more time using these curiosity-driven techniques that follow. If you’re not sure, stick around.

Ask Curious Questions

Because we’re all different and language matters, these questions will help us get on the same page so we can work together to improve our powers of prediction. This will also help you understand what you mean and create a consistency for yourself.

-What’s your probability with probably? When you say, “probably,” what do you mean? Do you mean a likelihood of more than 50%, nothing less than 68%, or at least 98%?

When I say, “probably” I mean at least 82% likely. When my husband says “probably” he means more than 65% likely. But probably it depends, which is probably not so great for effective predicting.

-What is the level of difficulty of the prediction you’re making? High, medium, or low?

For example, it may be easier to predict how many popcorn balls or training programs you could sell in a year than to predict what specific dollar effect the Chinese markets will have on your stock portfolio or how many extra terrestrial creatures will be identified by the Mars Rover in the next 10 years. Knowing how hard your prediction will be could help you decide how many of these curiosity-driven predictive tricks you should use.

Get Curious About How You’ll Measure

Creating a way to measure the accuracy of your prediction against what really happens is the only way to know if your predictive powers are improving. We all believe that our predictions are much better than they are when we rely on 20-20 hindsight. That’s postdicting. Silly us.

-How will you measure your prediction? Dollar or Euro figure? Number? Percentage?

Hindsight bias is a curiosity killer that occurs when we do our predicting after we know the outcome. Not surprisingly we think the outcome is more likely than we would have had we predicted  before the outcome occurred. I suspect this is why I’m so great at knowing the answers on Jeopardy after they are revealed.

Photo credit Xurble

Photo credit Xurble

The next 4 curiosity-driven tricks will make your predictive powers magically more accurate.

Get Curious About What to Avoid

-Avoid considering the most likely scenario. It will anchor your estimates closer to wishful thinking and potentially farther away from reality.
-Avoid stating a range.
-Make your prediction as three specific estimates–high, medium, and low.

This trick requires more curiosity because instead of two endpoints (like in a range) you will have three distinct estimates. It also provides the added benefit of helping you avoid being blindsided by extremes because each estimate is more considered. When you consider only a mushy range around a hopeful outcome, it is harder to plan for the extremes.

Get Curious About “Could” Rather than “Should”

Curiosity about what could happen in the future casts a bigger net over the future than considering only what should happen.

-Set aside the power of positive thinking for a moment and draft of a list of 6 reasons why the prediction you’re most confident about could be wrong.
-Set aside negative thoughts for a moment and draft a list of 6 reasons why the prediction you’re most confident about could be right?
-Imagine giving advice to someone faced with a similar decision and needing to make the same prediction. Imagine that the accuracy of the prediction was way more important than providing false hope or a skeptical perspective. What could happen?

Get Curious about Being Wrong

-Make your prediction and set it aside
-Walk away or take a hike and think about the role of bumblebees in your life—or happy hour…or pink elephants.
-Elevate curiosity ahead of judgment to sincerely ask the question: What if I’m wrong? Allow yourself to assume you are wrong.
-Do not refer to your original prediction.
-Create a new prediction.
-Average your two predictions.

Sexy mind science says that the average of your two predictions get you closer to predicting the future.

Get Curious about Others…Alone

According to Dan Gardner in his excellent book Future Babble, more accurate predictions occur when you glue together the combined judgment of people predicting independently. This obviously works best when you all have access to the information necessary to make a prediction, but it is not necessary for it to be the exact same information.

-Keep your prediction to yourself.
-Ask 3-7 people to independently predict the outcome you’re trying to predict.
-Combine the poll results.

 

Predicting the future cannot be done with certainty–it depends on the decisions we are making in the present…and a lot of things that have little to do with us. Predicting the future isn’t about avoiding uncertainty, but rather managing uncertainty so we can make better decisions. Whether your go-to tool of prediction is your profoundly tuned intuition, a highly-prized analytic model, or a worn deck of tarot cards in mystical hands, curiosity could always play a vital role for you in this process. Heck, it’s free and waiting for you to acknowledge and use it.

 

In case you’re curious…here’s a fun little intuition test for you.

This was originally created by Shane Fredrick at Yale and published in The Journal of Economic Perspectives. Since the vast majority of us think our intuition is better than average, here are three fun questions to test yours.

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

What’s your answer?

Now try this.

In a lake there is a patch of lily pads. Every day the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how many days would it take for the patch to cover half the lake?

And…?

Finally, try this.

If it takes five machines five minutes to make five widgets, how many minutes would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

What do ya say?

 

Learning and elevating curiosity with other curiosity seekers gives curiosity its greatest power. If you love curiosity and want to find out the power it can have in your life, join the Tribe of the Curious.

Give Me Curiosity

 

I suppose you want the answers to the fun little intuition test? If you’re like the vast majority of intuitive people, you probably guessed that the bat cost 10 cents. Did you also guess 24 days for half the lake to be covered by lily pads? Did you guess 100 minutes for the widget question? If so, you’re in very good company (as in the vast majority of us), but…you are also wrong. That’s one of the problems with intuition. It’s always right in hindsight. While intuition can certainly be a useful tool, without a smidgeon of logical curiosity, it’s less useful.

The correct answers are: The bat costs 5 cents, it would take 47 days for lily pads to cover half the lake, and it would take 5 minutes for 100 machines to make 100 widgets. Set this test aside for a year and come back to it. Are you like me? Is it still hard to stop those “intuitive” answers from popping into your head?