The Atlantic

Humans Are Bad at Predicting Futures That Don’t Benefit Them

Unrealistic optimism makes people think bad things are less likely to happen to them than to others, and it hampers their decision-making.
Source: Olivia ZZ / Getty

Between 1956 and 1962, the University of Cape Town psychologist Kurt Danziger asked 436 South African high-school and college students to imagine they were future historians. Write an essay predicting how the rest of the 20th century unfolds, he told them. “This is not a test of imagination—just describe what you really expect to happen,” the instructions read.

Of course, everyone wrote about apartheid. Roughly two-thirds of black Africans and 80 percent of Indian descendants predicted social and political changes amounting to the end of apartheid. Only 4 percent of white Afrikaners, on the other hand, thought the same. How did they get it so wrong?

Students’ predictions were more like fantasies. “Those who were the beneficiaries of the existing state of affairs were extremely reluctant to predict its end,” Danziger explains, “while those who felt oppressed by the same situation found it all too easy to foresee its collapse.”

Psychology research that the more desirable a future event is, the more likely people think it is. When the sociologists Edward Brent and Donald Granberg wish fulfillment in U.S. presidential elections between 1952 and 1980, they found that 80 percent of each of the major candidates’ supporters expected their preferred candidate to win by a ratio of around four to. Likewise, after the 2008 election, researchers survey predictions from 19,000 Americans and found that Democrats tended to think Barack Obama was more likely to win, while Republicans assumed John McCain would.

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic5 min readPsychology
The Widespread Suspicion of Opposite-Sex Friendships
In 1989, When Harry Met Sally posed a question that other pop-cultural entities have been trying to answer ever since: Can straight men and women really be close friends without their partnership turning into something else? (According to The Office,
The Atlantic6 min readPolitics
The Last Days of the Other 1 Percent
Next week’s deadline to qualify for the third Democratic debate could leave half of the large field of candidates on the sidelines.
The Atlantic9 min readPolitics
Only the Right Can Defeat White Nationalism
Law-enforcement agencies can arrest terrorists, but they cannot settle existential arguments about the nature of American democracy.