Forecasting the future is far from easy, but there is a way to hone your skills no matter who you are.

Will the UK leave the EU within 2019?

Will the US House of Representatives impeach Trump this year?

Will a man or a woman win the Democratic primary?

How you answer these questions is not simply a matter of intelligence or education. A four-year forecasting tournament, the Good Judgment Project, tested thousands of people’s abilities to predict world events. The top performers were educated, for sure, but their performance also relied on many styles of thinking that are not measured in traditional academic tests. They also represented a mix of genders, ages and backgrounds.

Take the example of Elaine Rich, a pharmacist from a Maryland suburb, who signed up in her 60s and quickly excelled in making the tournament’s probability-based predictions. As she told NPR, world affairs had never been her forte and she hadn’t studied maths in college. But with a bit of training, she ended up performing in the top 1% of forecasters.

As the project leader, Philip Tetlock, wrote in his book Super-forecasting: “A brilliant puzzle-solver may have the raw material for forecasting, but if he doesn’t also have an appetite for questioning basic, emotionally charged beliefs, he will often be at a disadvantage relative to a less intelligent person who has a greater capacity for self-critical thinking.”

If you fancy testing your own forecasting skills, BBC Future has teamed up with Good Judgment and the UK innovation foundation Nesta to launch our own forecasting challenge that is open to anyone to join.

You may find that you already have an amazing talent for predicting the future – but don’t worry if you initially underperform. With a little practice, anyone can improve their prediction abilities on all kinds of issues, and in time you may see other benefits too, such as a boost in open-mindedness. If you would like to learn more about the science of making wiser judgements before joining the challenge, read on...

How will the US vote in its next election? Super-forecasters may have a better insight (Credit: Getty Images)

How will the US vote in its next election? Super-forecasters may have a better insight (Credit: Getty Images)

The question of what constitutes good judgement has troubled philosophers for millennia, along with the suspicion that raw brainpower, alone, is not enough for truly wise insights.

Indeed, according to Rene Descartes, it may even push us to greater error. “The greatest minds are capable of the greatest vices as well as the greatest virtues,” he wrote in the 17th Century. “Those who go forward but very slowly can get further, if they always follow the right road, than those who are in too much of a hurry and stray off it.”

As I write in my book The Intelligence Trap, cutting-edge psychological research now offers some very precise ways in which greater brainpower drive us down the wrong track.

When thinking about politics, your brilliant brain can become a tool for propaganda rather than truth-seeking

Consider the phenomenon of “motivated reasoning”. When we think about emotionally charged issues – particularly those associated with our identities – we don’t apply our thinking in an even-handed way to appraise the evidence at hand. Instead, we may simply use it to rationalise our existing viewpoint and demolish any arguments that contradict those views. And the more intelligent or knowledgeable you are, the easier it may be to build elaborate arguments that support your point of view.

Your brilliant brain becomes a tool for propaganda rather than truth-seeking.

We can see this most clearly with views on global warming. Among Democrats, more numerate and scientifically literate people are more likely to endorse the view that human emissions are causing climate change; but among Republicans, the exact opposite is true. The more numerate and scientifically literate participants are more likely to deny the effect of human emissions on the environment.

The intersection of political affiliation and education can influence views on climate change (Credit: Getty Images)

The intersection of political affiliation and education can influence views on climate change (Credit: Getty Images)

Researchers have now observed similar patterns on many other issues – from gun control to fracking and stem cell research –  where greater knowledge seems to increase political polarisation. If you’re trying to predict the outcome of something emotionally charged like Brexit, motivated reasoning is almost certainly skewing your thinking.

Besides motivated reasoning, smart people may also suffer from “earned dogmatism” – in which your perceptions of your own expertise cause you to become more closed-minded. If you had a politics degree, for instance, you may have a tendency to ignore new evidence that contradicts your preconceptions – because you feel that you know everything there is to know already.

Not every smart person falls for these traps, of course. It depends on whether your intelligence is complemented by some other traits that ensure you use it wisely.

Take curiosity. Both questionnaires and behavioural measures confirm that some people are naturally more curious than others – for them, learning new facts is a reward in its own right (and even creates a dopamine kick in the brain). Do you actively seek new knowledge? And would you get the itch to read a newspaper article on a favourite subject, even if it threatens to challenge your assumptions? These people appear to be less likely to allow their views to be skewed by their political affiliations, since their hunger for new knowledge trumps any dogmatic tendencies. But there are many intelligent people who do not have this hunger for knowledge for its own sake.

You might also enjoy:

Psychologists are also interested in the protective potential of “intellectual humility” – essentially, how easily you can admit that you are wrong. Once again, this can be measured by questionnaires. People with greater intellectual humility are less likely to hold polarised, dogmatic views. Instead, they appraise the evidence at hand and to listen to alternative points of view.

In the initial Good Judgment Project, the super-forecasters with the most accurate insights showed just this kind of thinking – they checked their confidence, and were quick to admit their mistakes and update their opinions when new evidence emerged. People who were most prone to rigid closed-minded thinking, dogmatism, and arrogance, in contrast, performed much worse – no matter what their IQ and academic credentials.

What is the probability of President Trump leaving office early? (Credit: Getty Images)

What is the probability of President Trump leaving office early? (Credit: Getty Images)

Fortunately, our minds are malleable: anyone can learn to avoid blinkered reasoning. One technique is the “consider the opposite” strategy, in which you deliberately occupy the alternative stance and argue against your initial intuitions, a practice that has been shown to reduce a range of self-serving biases. (You can read more about that here.)

There is also evidence that learning about logical fallacies and common thinking errors can help you to think more rationally about the news you consume, so that you appraise information based on the quality of the arguments – rather than whether it simply aligns with your existing beliefs. And a very basic refresher in ways to calculate risk and uncertainty can help improve your overall decision making on a range of issues – such as health, finance, and politics.

Good thinking can be learnt – and our new forecasting tournament might be a perfect opportunity to sharpen your judgements. The practice of forecasting forces you to turn your intuitions and beliefs into testable hypotheses that can be proven or disproven. As a result, you will learn to overcome your motivated reasoning and earned-dogmatism – if you suffer from them – and you’ll develop a better understanding of risk and uncertainty.

There’s evidence suggesting participants in forecasting tournaments can improve their accuracy with training. And what’s more, compared to a control group, the participants in a forecasting competition went on to show greater intellectual humility and reduced polarisation on a range of issues – including those that had not been discussed in the tournament itself. They had learnt to question their assumptions and to look beyond the blinkers of their ideology.

So why not sign up to our project and see how you fare? Whether you wish to be a super-forecaster or you simply want to develop a more rational understanding of the world around you, you might be surprised by what you find.


David Robson is a senior journalist at BBC Future. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.

Join 900,000+ Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter or Instagram.

Did you enjoy this story? Then we have a favour to ask. Join your fellow readers and vote for us in the Webby Awards! It only takes a minute and helps support original, in-depth journalism. Thank you!

Around the BBC