It’s human nature to attempt to conceptualize the future. All civilizations, from the ancient to the modern, have had some tradition of divination or fortune telling; these days, we have data and statistical models to give us some insight into what’s to come. But left to our own devices, most of us are really bad at predicting what will happen—and that’s a consequence of the wiring of the human brain.
Collectively, the thought patterns that affect the way we think, make decisions, and interact with other people are known as cognitive biases. Many of these biases also distort our perceptions of what will happen — in elections, in the economy, and in our everyday lives — whether we’re looking ahead by 50 years or 50 minutes.
It’s not all bad news, according to Don Moore, a professor of organizational behavior at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “To listen to psychologists like me talk about the way people fall short of perfect rationality, it’s easy to come away with a depressing message,” he says. “But you can also see the glass as half-full.” Humans are far from perfect at this, but we’re still the best future-predictors on the planet. “Yeah, we don’t do a perfect job of calculating future benefits and losses. On the other hand, we’re a whole lot better at it than chimpanzees.”
The other good news is that you can — at least to some extent — overcome your cognitive biases. The first step is being able to identify them, and know when you’re most susceptible. From there, you can work on getting better at outsmarting your own brain.
1. Hindsight bias
Ironically, one thing that impedes our ability to foresee the future is our tendency to believe we already have — or, at least, that we should have. Hindsight bias is our tendency to remember the past as being more predictable than it actually was.
Sometimes, that means retroactively believing we knew something was going to happen. The 2016 election is one potent example; the initial reactions of shock followed by myriad “We knew it all along” think pieces. Studies show that whatever our real-time predictions may be, once we know an outcome, we’re likely to inflate the accuracy of our original predictions by as much as 20 percent. In this imperfectly remembered version of the past, things were more predictable, and we understood them more clearly.
Other times, hindsight bias means fooling ourselves into thinking we’re missing the obvious.
“We fall victim to the hindsight bias when we look to the past and say, ‘Oh, I should’ve known that was going to happen,’” Moore says. “We think if only we were smart enough, we should’ve been able to predict the future.”
Either way, you can combat hindsight bias by preparing for it ahead of time. By considering all the potential outcomes for a given scenario, you’ll be less likely to consider something inevitable when it really wasn’t.
2. Optimism bias, or wishful thinking
We all want good things for ourselves, and we want to believe those things are possible. But we tend to lean into this a little too much, believing that things will work out for our future selves no matter what, and that the likelihood of something bad happening to us is far lower than it is for other people.
Moore points to research showing that visualizing your ideal state can make you more optimistic about your ability to achieve that state. “Sometimes you hear the advice that you should visualize yourself and your circumstances the way you want them to be,” he says. This is textbook wishful thinking, and while it does make you more optimistic about your future, visualization alone won’t actually improve it.
We all want good things for ourselves, and we want to believe those things are possible. But we tend to lean into this a little too much.
“Visualizing yourself as rich or thin or whatever is unlikely to change your circumstances in life. But if it involves planning — you visualize doing well on an exam or performing well in an athletic event, and then you’re motivated to study or train — that’s different,” he says. “Then, you’re getting yourself to do the hard work that actually gets you to the goal.”
3. Salience bias
We all worry, but most of us are probably worrying about the wrong things. The salience bias describes people’s tendency to focus on things that seem like a big deal while ignoring other things that may be more worthy of their mental energy.
In the days after 9/11, for instance, Harvard psychologist Jennifer Lerner conducted a study where as many as 20 percent of respondents said there was a high probability they’d be injured or killed in a terrorist attack in the coming year. Moore points to the study as a clear example of the salience bias.
“The percentage of the population who experienced consequences from terrorism is .001 percent, but 20 percent of people think they’re going to be affected? That’s huge,” he says. “Terrorism features with pathological prominence in our worries about the future. In reality, you’re far more likely to die falling off a ladder.”
Worry and fear are necessary; most of the time, they keep us from doing stupid things or putting ourselves in danger. But, Moore says, you should focus your worries on the potential dangers you might realistically face.
“We ought to really be concerned about our vulnerability to things like automobile accidents and the enormous danger we subject ourselves to when we glance at our phones,” he says. “Those are real risks we face every day, but for some reason we focus our worry on plane crashes and terrorist attacks.” So, basically, stop texting and driving, and remind yourself that the probability of your plane crashing is miniscule. You’ll be much safer and, almost definitely, a lot less stressed out.
4. Projection bias
We’ve all fallen victim to this one at the grocery store. You’re starving and there’s nothing in the fridge. Next thing you know, you’re spending half your paycheck at the checkout line and you can’t even remember what you put in the cart.
“This bias describes our tendency to project current states onto the future,” Moore explains. “You’re hungry now, and you project that state onto your future self, and buy more than you’re going to need.”
Shopping while hungry is harmless compared to the other ways projection bias can influence us. In its more insidious form, it manifests in the tendency to think we’ll always care just as much about the things we care about right now, which can lead to some less-than-stellar decisions.
“A lot of young people run afoul of this by choosing to pre-commit themselves to causes or issues there’s little reason to think they’ll actually care about in the future,” Moore says. And “a lot of people spend a lot of money trying to remove tattoos they got in a passionate, youthful state of mind.”
Beating the projection bias requires patience and planning. “With things like the grocery-shopping example, it helps to rely less on your intuition and more on a formal list of rules and procedures,” Moore says. “Follow your shopping list, rather than picking up whatever looks good in the moment.” With bigger-picture things, your shopping list-equivalent can be a list of goals or a life plan to refer back to in the face of major decisions.
Time also helps here. While older people still deal with projection bias on occasion, they’re less likely to commit to something before they’re really sure it’s going to stick. “Perhaps it’s due to having been through change, and having seen their preferences shift,” Moore says. “I think older people just get less sure they can anticipate what they’ll care about in the future.” So even if you really, really, really want a portrait of a Vine star tattooed across your back, maybe just… give it a couple years.
5. Hyperbolic discounting bias
One classic experiment, pioneered by Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler, asks people to choose between receiving money immediately or waiting a bit for a larger sum. When asked, for instance, “Would you like $100 right now, or $120 in a week?” most people choose the instant payout. But when the timeline’s extended — “Would you like $100 in a year, or $120 in a year and a week?” — most people are happy to wait the extra week for the extra dough.
Hyperbolic discounting is a cognitive bias that makes it hard for us to see our future selves as, well, ourselves. It’s why we’re more likely to choose short-term pleasures over long-term rewards; why we spend Monday night watching Netflix on the couch, regardless of what that’ll mean for Tuesday’s to-do list; and why saving for retirement can feel like taking money out of our pockets now in order to benefit a stranger in a future that seems impossibly distant.
The solution is simple: Get to know your future self. Psychologist Hal Hershfield, a professor at UCLA who studies the effects of time on judgment, asks his students to challenge their hyperbolic discounting bias by looking at an age-progressed photo of themselves before making financial decisions. To imitate the effect, try conjuring a mental image of yourself days, months, or years down the road.
“Having seen a picture, people have an easier time making decisions that will benefit that version of themselves,” Moore says. “We are more generous and compassionate with people whose identities we’re aware of.”
Your future self will be grateful for it.