Illusions of Foresight

28 Aug 2006|Lee Shupp

I’ve just finished reading “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard professor of psychology. The book applies research from psychology to analyze how we think about the future, and why our visions of the future are so often wrong. He starts by examining happiness, and what it really means. He then focuses upon three illusions of foresight:

1. “Realism,” or how we are often fooled by our own imaginations.
2. “Presentism,” or how we apply our experience of the present to project a future that is, well, lots like the present.
3. “Rationalization,” or how we often misjudge how we will feel about the future when we finally get there.

Needless to say, these three illusions hamper effective foresight and smart strategic planning. It makes sense for futurists and strategists to understand these illusions so that we can expose and extract them from client engagements that focus on the future.

Realism is about how our brains continually fool us, especially our memories. Gilbert argues that our memories do not produce documentary-style polaroids of the past, but rather impressionist paintings, where the less we actually know, the more the artist embellishes the memory. Our brain rewrites the code for each memory when we remember it, adding stuff and subtracting stuff so that our memories change over time. We rarely realize how much our brains do this, and when we do we think of ourselves as just spicing up the story a bit, when in reality we are doing this all the time, mostly unconsciously. Hence our memories of corporate successes and failures are suspect, and we need to dig deeper to truly understand the past with bias, and how true lessons learned apply to the future.

Presentism is about how we confuse how we are feeling now with how we may feel in the future. If we’re in a great mood, the future looks rosier than it should, and if we’re in a bad mood, the futures seems darker and drearier than it should. This implies that the state of people in a strategy session and the current climate of a company color futures thinking lots.

Rationalization is about how the eye and the brain conspire to produce a reality that we expect to see. We overestimate both our happiness and sadness when imagining future successes or disasters. We pay more attention to favorable information than unfavorable information, and prefer those who provide the former. Hence it is very hard to take a detached, critical and unbiased view of the future. This is why we must be careful to include balance in foresight activities like scenario building, including both positive and negative aspects of each scenario, to keep balance and a more realistic view of alternative futures.

Kudos to Chris and TED for sending this book around to TEDsters. Most of the TED books have been behind the curve of what I’ve been reading, but this one was fresh, fascinating, and fun. Great pick!

Kudos also to Daniel Gilbert for great writing and provocative ideas. Highly recommended read.

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