For one week Charlie Mylie and Jori Sackin had The Big Board at Missouri Bank asking people to make predictions. They greeted the customers as they entered, prompted them to make predictions about the future and then walked them through plotting it on the board. This is the third Big Board project and this particular iteration was inspired by the book "Superforcasters" by Phillip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner. If you like prediction you might also check out The Good Judgement Project, an online community that predicts real world events. The conversation that follows is an amalgamated version of the many conversations that the project produced. This is the second in a series of 5 that will be published on Ten Millimeters.
J: Hello. Would you like to make a prediction about the future?
M: Sure. Wow. This looks fun. How do I play?
J: You just have to give us a prediction and we'll walk you through putting it up on the board.
M: Well, let me look at this thing. Is this what other people have predicted?
M: Bill Cosby is going to die in the next 6 months? That's terrible. Who predicted that?
J: We're not divulging that kind of information. Honestly, I don't even remember.
M: "In two years I'm going to be married." Well, that's easy. I'm already married so that would be 100%.
J: Yes, but...
J: I mean...it can't be 100% right?
M: Yeah, but you can't think like that.
J: That nothing is 100%?
M: Yeah, ok 99%. Is that ok?
J: I'm not saying it isn't alright. I'm just saying, let's think about this a little more. Do you know the average rate of divorce?
M: 50% right?
J: We looked it up earlier and it's actually around 40 to 45%, which means, the average person has about a 65%. Can I ask how long you’ve been married?
M: 14 years.
J: Ok, well the average marriage lasts about 8 years, and every year after that you have to imagine the probability increases that you'll stay married. Not you, just the average person. So let's say the base rate we start at is around 75%. Now keep in my mind that's before we've even started to consider how you feel about your husband and how we feels about you.
M: Right, so that puts it to 99%. The personal stuff. I mean, of course one of us could die in the next two years, so then we wouldn't be married, but that's like 1%. Ugh! I don't like this. I don't like thinking about these alternatives. My husband is a police officer, and I just don't think this is a healthy way to live. It changes me in a way that I don't want to be changed. Thinking about that 1% chance or even if it was 5%. I feel like, I would no longer be the same person anymore if I started to think that way. I would be giving up on something that's important to me, a way of seeing the world, that I feel like would make me a worse person. I mean, what would it do to my relationship with my husband, if I look at him tonight and think, we'll there's a 5% chance we're not going to be together in 2 years? It's like it somehow violates the sacredness of our relationship, that I could consider that alternative, that I could start planning out my life without him. It would feel like a betrayal. Do you see what I'm saying?
J: Yeah. I talked to someone a little while ago that was bothered by the fact that even thinking about an alternate reality would make it more likely, but that's not what you're saying right? You're saying that thinking about it changes you in ways you aren't comfortable with, and I guess I don't have a good answer for you as to how it would change you, because honestly I don't know. I don't know if this strategy is healthier. I only know it's a more effective way of predicting probability, and that skill might be less valuable in the long run, especially when it comes in contact with something that's viewed as sacred, such as a relationship, but I feel like it's my job to try and push people to give it a shot, to take seriously that the idea of "probability" isn't like the Arc of the Covenant. If you touch it, you won't burst into flames. It's just one way of seeing things and having more ways to see seems better than having less, don't you think?
M: Sure. I mean. In theory. But do you expect people to walk around all day going, “There’s a 5% probability my husband is gong to die. There’s a 12% probability that I won’t get the job that I really want. There’s a 25% chance I’m going to drink too much tonight and regret it.”
J: Well, no, but you specifically chose negative things to predict. I think the issue here is that probability asks us to take into consideration multiple futures and in some of those futures, things don’t turn out like we want. How healthy is it for people to consider these futures? Well, it really depends on the person. I can imagine a person who tends towards over confidence, who often doesn't see the negative outcomes of their actions, and so I could imagine it really helping them. But then I can also imagine a person who lives deeply in their negative future scenarios. So if their planning a trip, then they imagine their plane is crashing or getting sick from some exotic disease or they imagine a future of being kidnapped and held hostage. Would probability help this person?
M: Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t want to live in a present where I have to consider all of the possible failures of each individual moment. That seems like if I did that, I would become someone else. It’s just so different than how I live right now.
J: So, um, let’s go back and think about this for a second. How likely is a plane crash? Let’s take a second to look it up because this should be an easy one. Ok. The chances are 1 in 12 million. Figuring out disease will be harder, but I can say from previous research that there are lots of diseases across the world that are rapidly declining because of the advances in vaccinations. It’s much more likely you’ll get a boring stomach bug that makes you throw up then some flesh eating virus. And then there’s kidnapping. Let’s take Brazil as an example, because I know that's a country with a higher rate of tourists being kidnapped. Again, all it takes is a couple google searches. Let’s see. Ok. 1,000 people were kidnapped in Brazil in 2012. That seems like a lot, until you consider that in 2012 Brazil had 5.17 million tourists. So the probability of kidnaping is right around .0002%.
M: Yes, but that’s not how people think. They experience these thoughts viscerally. They see themselves getting kidnapped. They feel the fear of what it’s like to be grabbed and taken away in a crowd. They see their plane falling from the sky and them screaming unable to do anything to save themselves.
J: Exactly. That’s exactly my point. In the calculations we just did, I think it would be pretty hard to maintain those kinds of stories, those kind of visceral images, because, first of all, probability requires that you do rudimentary math, and second, it focuses your attention on other parts of the story. Instead of experiencing that little movie that plays in your head that shows your impending death, calculating probability diverts your attention to something else, and in that brief switch, you may be able to consider it differently.
M: I don’t know. I just don’t think it’s likely people are going to do this. It’s too much work.
J: You might be right. Again, we’re just talking about this hypothetical person I’ve made up. Maybe it doesn’t work this way. Certainly there are some life decision where this kind of calculation makes no sense. Decisions that require quick decisive action, such as if you suddenly lunged for me with a knife, but then also I didn’t use this type of thinking when I decided to get married. It was entirely a gut decision that had to do with how I felt. I could say the same thing for the house I bought. I just loved the house. I didn’t have to sit down and calculate variables to know that I wanted to live there.
M: Exactly. I feel like you keep contradicting yourself. I mean, why bother with this type of thinking if it's not useful in the major life changing decisions and it's not useful in the immediate urgent decisions either?
J: Yeah. That’s a good question. I would rephrase it slightly to ask, “When is this type of thinking relevant to the problem at hand?” Is that fair?
J: Ok. Well, I don’t know. What do you think?
M: I mean, it seems useful. I get it. I do. It seems logical when I think about it abstractly. Really. I’m not trying to be difficult. But if I start applying it to my own life, it becomes less clear when I should make the effort, because it’s a lot of work. It’s like if you asked me to do the math problem 23 x 12 in my head. It just feels like work, and it’s a little uncomfortable. I don’t know how else to describe it. So that’s the trade off right? It’s slightly uncomfortable. And so what would motivate me to do it on a daily basis, when I’ve been living without it for the past 43 years and seemingly doing just fine?
J: Right so the trade off is accuracy. Weighing the actual risks of being kidnapped in Brazil against the story you have in your head about that visceral experience. When you play that movie in your head, it may seem like THE only possibility, and that may be true because its the only one you are experiencing. It's happening and you can see the details of how it would happen, and you have some approximation of how that feels. But that may not be good information to plan from. And so, to answer the first question, I think this type of thinking comes in handy in situations where we have lots of time to weigh risks, and in doing so, it gives us a better handle on whether we are over or under exaggerating them.
Your second question is harder because it involves you, and I don’t know much about you specifically. So I’m going to answer it in more general terms, which is to say, I mean…ok…I lost my train of thought here.
M: Why should people think like this if they’ve been doing fine without it?
J: Right. So I would challenge the fact that people are “doing fine”. I think people make some reliable miscalculations that does them a disservice in their own lives, such as not traveling to Brazil because they have a fear of being kidnapped. But people are only going to use certain ways of thinking if they find them useful, and this one has the slight disadvantage of requiring a little cognitive effort, and that’s work, and work can be a little unpleasant, as you mentioned. So the answer I think is that people have to try it in their life and see it succeeds. Imagine an adult learning a second language. At first learning what words mean might feel like work, but eventually it becomes second nature, and so maybe all it takes is a little practice, and then that slight uncomfortableness will disappear and it will seem like the most natural thing in the world.
M: I’m still not convinced. I tried to learn French last year and I was just lousy at it. It never took. I just don’t have that kind of mind. Maybe this is just a difference in how some people think. You might be inclined to think this way, but someone like me just isn’t.
J: Well, I don’t think I am inclined to think this way. Actually it is fairly new to me. I just read the book, “Superforcasters” only last week. I mean, I’ve read other books that have made some similar points about bias, but it took me playing this prediction game to really want to practice at it.
M: Right, but that’s you. I would never do anything like this.
J: Ok, but, I think you’re missing the point, which is, I’m not very good at this, at least not in my own life. I spent most of my life ignorant of these ideas, but I read a book and picked it up and started to use it and it seemed fun. But it only seemed fun doing it with other people. I started to try and do this by myself and was instantly bored. It seems, right now, I can only manage to think this way out loud and with other people.
M: Hmm. What do you think that’s about?
J: I think it might have something to do with that workload that you’re talking about. I’m kind of lazy in my head if I have to think about something, but when I’m out in public, especially like this when there is a performative aspect to it, I really want to step up my game, and so I try a little harder. So saying it out loud, helps me get over doing the work, because I know people are watching, and for whatever reason I try to be a better more logical self in front of others than in my own head.
M: Well this has been fun. How long are you guys going to be here?
J: Till Friday.
M: Ok. Well…
J: Wait, do you want to make a prediction on if Bill Cosby is going to die in 6 months?
M: No. Thanks though.