Super Forecasters: People Who Predict Future Events

Super forecasters aren't 100 percent accurate with their forecasts, but they tend to get pretty close. Contrary to what many think, they're usually anonymous people, with really open minds yet extremely methodical at the same time.
Super Forecasters: People Who Predict Future Events
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Written and verified by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 05 July, 2022

As a rule, we like information that gives us a better idea of what’ll happen in the future. Therefore, we see anything that reduces uncertainty as a reward or reinforcement. Some of us rely on our common sense, others consult horoscopes, and many more just sit and wait and hope. On the other hand, there are the super forecasters, a group of thinkers who amaze everyone with their ability to envision the future.

Super forecasters aren’t fortune tellers, nor do they have exceptional powers. They’re ordinary people who’ve found a way to delve into different phenomena and establish what’ll happen with them in the future. How do they do it?

This was the question asked by Philip Tetlock, a Canadian psychologist, in 1987. Back then it seemed that nuclear war was about to break out. For this reason, Tetlock dedicated himself to collecting the projections made by the experts and discovered that they’d failed. Nevertheless, many other anonymous subjects had been able to foresee what was going to happen. These were the super forecasters.

For super-forecasters, beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be guarded .”

-Philip Tetlock-

Woman thinking, depicting super forecasters.
Super forecasters have a special ability to delve into and analyze phenomena and predict what’ll happen in the future.

A revealing follow-up

In 1987, Phillip Tetlock began the difficult task of compiling the projections of 300 experts. These were, in general, people who appeared on television or who wrote for prestigious publications. The kind of intellectuals who tend to be consulted when there are doubts about certain matters.

Tetlock managed to collect the not insignificant figure of 27,500 projections. Next, he did the hardest thing: he waited. In fact, he let 18 long years go by. Then, he contrasted the forecasts of the experts with the stark reality.

He discovered what he’d feared and, at the same time, expected. The correct predictions were weak and few, while the incorrect ones were common. The most striking thing was that the more famous and notorious the forecasters were, the fewer their successes. Did this mean that no one could predict events with a sufficient degree of validity?

A repeat experiment

By 2011, Tetlock was ready for a more ambitious experiment. This time he brought together a total of 20,000 analysts. To some, he gave information on the methods available for making projections. Others, he trained in the calculation of probabilities. While some had to work alone, others had to do it in a group.

All of them were asked questions about geopolitical events of interest. For example, a possible armed invasion into Iraq or the economic future of Greece. The joint work was dubbed The Good Judgment Project.

The researcher found that training had made many improve their predictions. Furthermore, teamwork gave much better results than individual work. However, the constant remained: the great experts couldn’t sufficiently foresee events.

That said, this time, there were certain individuals who were classified as super forecasters. Both Tetlock and other scholars then raised the question: how did they do it? The answer that was given was  connected with the type of thinking they employed.

man thinking
Super forecasters see a phenomenon from different angles.

The old foxes

The philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, wrote an essay in the 19th century in which he divided intellectuals into two groups: hedgehogs and foxes. The first saw the world through a theory or a doctrine, as in the cases of Plato, Marx, and Hegel, among others. On the other hand, foxes were eclectic and liked to adopt different perspectives to analyze a phenomenon. Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Balzac were foxes.

It appeared that super forecasters weren’t foxes. They didn’t bet but preferred to use multiple models to see the phenomenon from different angles. They were skeptical, cautious, and scrupulous in their claims. For the same reason, they weren’t famous. Indeed, these people weren’t showmen.

Here’s what the super-forecasters had in common:

  • They handled statistics and probabilities well.
  • They had a great reflective capacity. For example, they analyzed their own analyzes and took a little longer to draw conclusions.
  • They repeatedly checked what they put forward, looking for any errors.
  • They were great researchers and immersed themselves fully in the topic at hand. In fact, they carried out thorough investigations as a preliminary step to all their work.
  • They knew how to unlearn and weren’t married to theories, doctrines, or conclusions. Furthermore, they knew how to identify novelties that changed the panorama. They also managed to detach themselves from models that didn’t show efficiency.

It’s evident that super forecasters are people who make intensive and comprehensive use of their intellectual abilities. They’re also extremely methodical people. Roger Babson belonged to that group. He was the intellectual who went against all the great economists and announced the Great Crash of 1929 in the United States.

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  • Tetlock, P. E. (2003). Thinking the unthinkable: Sacred values and taboo cognitions. Trends in cognitive sciences, 7(7), 320-324.

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