The Perils of Predicting the Future Based on the Past

Toby Hazlewood

Just because it worked before...

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I imagine that we’ve all at some stage encountered the small-print, the health-warnings and the get-out-clauses that emphasise the same basic idea:

Past events are not always effective or useful for predicting the future.

In spite of this, I often find myself making connections between the past and the present, justifying random conclusions based on tenuous references to things that have happened before. Maybe you do too?

During a recent pleasant daydream I found myself reminiscing over the unseasonably hot weather last summer. For weeks at a time we were able to rely on dry and sunny weather instead of the characteristic grey and damp that is usual for the season. It certainly made lockdown more pleasant to endure.

As I stared out of the window, rain lashing sideways into the glass, it was tempting to believe that the hot and sunny summer of last year suggests a greater chance that this summer will be just the same. Then again, perhaps last summer’s weather and the law of averages will ensure that this year we have a customarily damp and lukewarm weather.

In truth, either or neither hypothesis may prove to be correct. Whatever happens, it will be entirely unrelated to what happened last year.

Selectively seeking hope from the past

It's is seductive to look to past events as a means of bringing certainty and clarity to an otherwise chaotic and uncertain future. We use the past to justify and substantiate our predictions about forthcoming events because it feels safe and comfortable and because as humans we crave order, certainty and structure in life. Such structure is often pretty thin on the ground.

Deep down we know that there are many factors at play, mostly outside of our control and this feels uncomfortable. And so, we trawl through our memories of the past, scraping around for reassurances that will help us to predict what will happen. To seek excessive reassurances is a trait of those suffering from anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder and it's unsurprising when we consider that most of us need reassurance at times, even if we don't suffer from such conditions.

Making connections where there are none

Occasionally, we may get lucky and our prediction turns out to be right. Flickers of deja-vu will convince us that we’d foreseen an event before it happened, that our past-experiences have indeed repeated and this tricks us into believing that our intuition was correct.

A difficult conversation will go as badly as it did the last time and we feel smug, if slightly wounded by the experience. The traffic light will change against us when we’re in a rush, just as we expected it would. While this may make us late, we reaffirm that events outside our control have conspired against us (once again).

The markets will rise as we predicted they would right after we’d placed a trade and we make some money in the process. We feel self-satisfied and proud that our prediction proved true. The next song served up at random from a playlist on our phone is the one we expected to hear and it reaffirms that we have some mystic-foresight.

Each of these coincidental events, while largely random and outside of our control, is instead taken as proof to us that we were right all along. It encourages us to continue to predict the future as a means of surfing the waves of uncertainty into the future.

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There are also the times when we forge connections between causes and effects that aren’t necessarily there. We think we see connections between things that are in-fact entirely unrelated. We formulate new ideas and theories upon experiences that we’ve completely misunderstood.

We mistakenly identify false-positives as categorical proofs of a theory, when in reality our success was down to luck, serendipity or something entirely different.

We observe false-negatives and mistakenly diagnose them as reasons not to try something again. We miss out on the real reasons why it failed.

When we connect things that we have no legitimate cause to connect, it leads us to misinterpret the world around us. That may feel comforting in the short-term as it tricks us into thinking we understand more than we really do. It can be harmful in the longer term if we remain oblivious to the actual learning opportunities that failures (and successes) could have offered us.

  • We place a lucky stock-trade based on advice picked up from an online forum and convince ourselves that we’ve stumbled upon a source of genuine market-insight just because we doubled our money the first time around.
  • Our workout at the gym goes unusually well, with endurance records smashed and personal-best weights lifted. We put it down to having eaten a banana precisely 90 minutes before walking onto the gym floor and vow to eat a banana at precisely the same time before every future workout.
  • We write a blog post on a topic that isn’t usual for us, publishing it on a Thursday at 4pm, and the post gets 15 times as many views and engagements as we’d usually expect. We vow to only write only on this topic and release our blog at 4pm on a Thursday forevermore, believing we’ve unlocked the code to going viral.

It’s confirmation bias at its finest.

Life is chaotic

We know deep down that much of life is random and that the delicate balance of chaos and order is what defines our lives. Where order prevails, structure, habit and repeatability ensure that we know what will happen from day-to-day in many aspects of life.

But in the parts of life where chaos dominates, we’re thrust into the unknown, forced to surrender control as events unfold around us and external forces do their work. We can only control what we do or say, not how the world reacts to our deeds or responds to our statements.

“To have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure, when life suddenly reveals itself, is intense, gripping and meaningful. When time passes and you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing you don’t notice, it is there and then that you are located precisely, on the border between order and chaos.”
-Jordan B. Peterson

Thriving with disorder

When faced with the future, it’s tempting to predict what will happen based on the events of the past. Alas, this trick of the mind is seldom useful for much more than easing our minds as we push forwards with another bold endeavour.

That comfort isn’t such a bad thing, provided that it’s used only as a temporary means of overcoming resistance and pushing forwards regardless.

Analysing past failures and victories is also a significant part of the process of personal growth and development. The lessons yielded by methodical reflection can be invaluable in ensuring that our wins compound and build upon each other, and our losses teach us lessons about what not to do again.

As such, I think there’s a balance to be struck in learning from the past and preparing for the future. I will keep on hoping for a hot summer this year too though, nonetheless!

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