It’s that time of year again, when prognosticators are making guesses about what the New Year will bring. We humans try to predict all kinds of things, from who will win the Super Bowl or the Oscars to how much snow we’ll get in a given winter. It raises the question: why are we so preoccupied by predictions? Especially when we’re as likely to be wrong as right.
In a lot of ways, trying to see into the future makes perfect sense. Predicting stock market fluctuations or what the next technological innovation will be could make you rich. Even simpler tasks, such as predicting how people will react to your actions, are socially useful.
Rob Kurzban, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, says modeling the future and thinking about all the possible outcomes is just what we do with our fancy, developed forebrains. It’s part of planning.
“There’s something very human and very useful about it,” Kurzban says. “Thinking about what’s going to be coming down the line allows you to make appropriate preparations today.”
A socially valuable knack
That makes sense for things such as the weather — how else would we know whether to pack an umbrella? But it doesn’t explain why we predict the outcomes of things that have no direct bearing on our own well-being, such as the Super Bowl. Or why we feel the need to broadcast our predictions in end-of-the-year TV specials and newspaper articles. Kurzban said he doesn’t know of any research on the topic, but as an evolutionary psychologist, he can make an educated guess: It might have to do with being socially valuable.
“If you’re going to be able to tell me where the bison are migrating tomorrow, then you’re a useful person to have around,” Kurzban said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are mechanisms that are designed to make you look useful in that respect.
Craig Fox, a policy and psychology professor at the University of California Los Angeles, said he doesn’t know of much research on the topic either, but he agrees that the pull toward prediction probably derives from something more practical.
“In the state of nature, you need to be able to predict whether a person is going to be a friend or foe based on social cues, or whether a particular fruit is going to make you sick,” Fox said. ”So obviously, it’s vital to our survival that we’re able to make predictions about what the consequences of our actions are going to be.”
Fox also said people generally don’t like surprises, and forming predictions may be a way for people to gain a sense of control over their environment.