10 Big Mistakes People Make in Thinking About the Future

In a time of huge change and uncertainty, we need to think about the future as clearly as possible. Here's where we most often get it wrong.

Photo Credit: Frank Peters

Being a working futurist means that I think a lot about how people think about the future. It also means spending a lot of time with people who are also thinking about their own futures.

Typically, this involves a dialogue between three distinct groups.

First, there's usually a small handful of very foresighted people, who are aware of their own blind spots and biases, and who are eager and open about the prospect of soaring into a wild blue sky to gather a lot of exciting new information. 

Second, there's a larger group of people who don't usually think at 50,000 feet -- but are willing to go there if they're with people they trust. Their wings aren't sturdy, and they are prone to some very common mistakes in thinking, but they're often the most gratifying group to work with. What they want is permission to let go, encouragement to go big, and a watchful eye to keep them out of the rocks and ditches. 

And then there's a third small group that's very resistant to the idea that anything could or should change. I've spent a lot of time over the years thinking and writing about that last group, because I'm fascinated by the question of what drives change resisters. What they want from me is safety -- the reassurance that if they overcome their natural reticence and try to embrace some constructive thinking about change, they won't end up all alone somewhere terrifyingly unfamiliar.

Of that second group, I've found that there's a fairly short list of common mistakes that they make over and over again -- little assumptions that create big obstacles in their ability to see all the potential alternatives clearly. These are the same mistakes most people out on the street and in the media make, too; on any given day, one can open a newspaper to the op-ed page and find three or four of these mistakes, right there in black and white. When pundits and prognosticators are wrong, these assumptions are usually somewhere near the root of why they're wrong.

To the end of helping progressives think more productively about the future we're trying to create, here are 10 of the most common mental hiccups that keep people from seeing the bigger picture and planning for it with a full measure of courage and intelligence.

1. The future won't be like the past. And the most likely future isn't. In any group, there's usually a tacit set of assumptions about where the world is headed, and what their future holds. Life has gone on for a certain way for a while -- and the longer that trend continues, the more invested they get in the assumption that things will just keep on going that same direction. I always ask people early on to describe their Most Likely Future -- the one they and their friends assume will happen if nothing else changes. And I've never met anybody who had to hesitate a minute to fill me in on what that future looks like. 

But the gotcha is: research by academic futurists has found that this expected future really isn't the most likely outcome at all. In fact, it only actually comes to pass somewhat less than half the time. Which means that somewhat more than half the time, you're going to be facing something else entirely. And if you're too settled on that vision of what's most likely, odds are that you won't do nearly enough to prepare for those alterative futures in which you are even more likely to actually end up living.

It's good to know what your expected future is. Objectively understanding what that story is and how you arrived at it is half the work. The other half lies in being willing to let go of that cherished vision long enough to figure out and prepare for some of the other things that could -- and probably will -- happen instead.

2. Trends end. This is related to #1, in that the most typical reason the expected future doesn't come is that one or more of the trends supporting it fails. As noted above: the longer a trend has been going on, the more we tend to assume that it will never end.

But all trends do end -- and, in fact, the longer it's been going on, the more overdue you are for it to change. One of the things I do is map the trends that are creating the current conditions, and figure out which trends are overripe (there are telltale signs) and thus most at risk of disrupting the existing circumstances. Imagining how these trends could fail or reverse -- what would happen if the opposite thing happened instead? -- is a useful way of revealing viable and realistic alternative futures. 

3. Avoid groupthink. Another reason the Most Likely Future tends to obscure everything else is groupthink. Every group has basic assumptions about how the world works -- what's realistic, what's plausible, what's nonsense, what can't be discussed. The longer the existing set of operating rules has been in place, the more pressure people feel not to question that -- and the crazier you look if you do suggest that other futures are possible. 

In fact, it's arguable that when a group that's reached a point where no other futures are even discussable, it's a clear red flag that they are vulnerable to being flattened by some new situation that comes out of the blue -- or any of the many other places they're no longer looking out for change. Which brings us to:

4. If it's taboo, it's probably important. The thing you are not discussing -- the elephant in the room -- has a very high probability of being the very thing that will put an end to the present era, and launch you into the next phase of your future. Worse: the longer you ignore or deny it, the more at its mercy you will ultimately be when the change does come down.

A big part of being a futurist is to gently get people to start thinking and talking about those taboo subjects, the ones that are too scary or painful to think about. The very act of bringing those hard issues out onto the table and beginning to grapple with them, all by itself, has tremendous power to make people more courageous and resilient. The elephant only has power as long as we refuse to talk about it. When we finally confront it, its power becomes ours.

5. Any useful idea about the future should sound ridiculous at first. This rule originated with Dr. Jim Dator, the founder of the graduate program in futures studies at the University of Hawaii. His point was: If you're not coming up with ideas that sound a little crazy on their surface, it's a sure sign that you're stuck in too many conventional assumptions -- and are therefore not thinking big enough about just how different the future could be. If things don't look a little weird, you're not reaching far enough.

An example: Six years ago, I wrote about the right-wing's up-and-coming assault on contraception. It sounded completely off-the-wall at the time, and I took a lot of grief for it. But look where we are now.

6. Ask: What stays the same? The world is big, and governed by huge interlocking chaotic systems whose behavior can be impossible to anticipate. But, at the same time, there are also constants -- the things that don't change from era to era, or that change so slowly that you can pretty much count on them staying the same even when everything else is going to hell.

Chief among these is human nature. Economies grow and shrink, nations rise and fall, the globe is getting hotter and world is getting smaller, but through it all, we are still Homo sapiens -- which means we will always be hungry, greedy, horny, infuriatingly stubborn, astonishingly kind, quick to take up arms against each other, and equally quick to bind each others' wounds. It's just how we are.

Any serious survey of a future landscape includes questions like: What stays the same? What will we carry forward with us? What will follow us, whether we want it to or not? What can we count on? What will we still need to guard against?

7. The other side is not always wrong. Right now, America is assertively separating itself into two vivid, strongly held visions of the future. In these situations, groupthink necessarily runs especially high; we are committed not only to progressive values, but also to a specific set of solutions, policies and outcomes that we believe will best make those values manifest in a world shaped by our vision. 

The other side, of course, is equally passionate about their values, vision, solutions, policies, and outcomes. In his new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science -- and Reality, Chris Mooney points out that one of the defining traits of liberals is that we're far more open to evaluating conservative ideas on their merits, and adopting good ideas wherever we find them. Conservatives, on the other hand, will usually consider the source first. If an idea came from a liberal, it's immediately rejected as unacceptable, regardless of its merits.

This is gross generalization, though. It's plenty easy to find progressives rejecting potentially useful ideas out of hand because they came from sources we don't agree with. But when we're deep in the throes of transforming a country, an economy and a society -- long on problems and short on good ideas for fixing them -- that kind of narrowness of mind is a luxury we can't afford.

8. Be aware of different change theories. Everybody has their pet theories about how change happens. Almost all of these theories can be sorted into one of about 10 basic buckets, which are described here. Most of us have two or three of these buckets that we think explain just a whole lot about the world, and another one or two that make us very uneasy. And it's usually true that the people we disagree with most are working off of some fundamentally different assumptions about how change happens.

Understanding which theories you're drawn to and which you tend to reject can go a long way toward helping you notice your own blind spots, and also form strategies to deal with places that your pet theories collide with those of other groups.

9. Don't think in five or 10 years. Think in 100 or 500 years. A lot of Wall Streeters didn't see the 2008 meltdown coming because economic forecasters typically work with historical data that's anywhere from two to five years old. In 2008, that means that their models didn't include so much as the possibility of a financial disaster on the scale of 1989, let alone 1929. They were thinking on a scale of five years, not 50. And certainly not 100.

While we know abstractly that Bad Things happened to the generations before us, we seldom believe that anything that bad could actually happen to us. America is safe and stable, and has been for a long time (though this is no guarantee: see #1). We're comfortable thinking that there's no way we could face famine or drought, epidemic or genocide, or other catastrophes on that kind of culture-changing scale. 

This is a common blind spot. Anything that's happened to humans before is quite likely to happen at some point again. And there's always the possibility that it could happen to us. Simply recognizing our true vulnerabilities -- however unlikely those catastrophes may seem -- and giving them their due in our future planning enables us to become stronger and more robust, even if the full catastrophe never arrives.

10. Don't assume it will be hard. Don't assume it will be easy. Better yet: don't assume anything, ever. Most of the above cautions are aimed at a final big one: Be acutely aware of every assumption you're making, and don't leave any of them unexamined.

Clear thinking about the future is all about carefully choosing which assumptions you're going to work off of. Often, futurists' main role is to point out and re-examine assumptions that everybody else just accepts as gospel. Someone will say, "Oh, we can't do that; it's too hard." And my job -- made easier, because I'm an outsider -- is to ask them why that's just assumed. As they explain the obstacles, we can unpack each piece of that assumption together -- about how this person won't go along, or how that agency's rules work, or why the time frame just won't allow for it. 

This exercise is worth doing because, frequently enough, the assessment that something's just not possible (or, conversely, will be trivially easy -- one should question those, too) falls apart when you take a second, deeper look at things. Maybe that assessment was true when you last visited this question six months ago. But maybe things have changed since then -- and now, your options are different. Or maybe it turns out that that old assessment is still true, after all. In that case, revisiting it increases your confidence that you can still trust it -- though it doesn't exempt you from continually poking at your assumptions, every time you revisit them, to make sure they're still true.

Whether the assumption changes or not, the exercise is worth doing because basing your assumptions about the future on outdated information that already belongs to the past isn't useful. The future is ambiguous enough when you start working from the baseline of the present. You only increase that ambiguity when you put yourself several steps back of that line -- especially when you don't have to.

In a time when the stakes are so high, and the margin of error so thin, it's more important than ever that we make the right decisions about the future the first time. Being mindful of these 10 mistakes can go a long way toward increasing the quality of our strategy and planning, and improve the choices we make about our country's future.

Sara Robinson, MS, APF is a social futurist and the editor of AlterNet's Vision page. Follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to AlterNet's Vision newsletter for weekly updates.