Our Predictions about Future Events Affect People’s Impressions of Us
Imagine that the government is preparing a nation-wide referendum on the introduction of a new legislation. The new law (let’s call it the “Big Brother surveillance law”) will allow mass surveillance and give government the power to hack private citizens and monitor their online behavior. If the proposal is supported by more than half of the votes cast, it will become law. You are following the discussions in the media, and different political forecasters are making different predictions about the outcome of the referendum. You hear a legal expert say that he expects more than half of the votes to support the law, making the law very likely to enter into force. Would you assume that this expert supports the law himself?
Forecasts are supposed to be based on facts, and forecasters are supposed to be motivated to make accurate forecasts. Yet, my research suggests that lay people don’t perceive forecasters in this way. Instead, people sometimes believe that others’ forecasts are just a reflection of the forecaster’s preferences.
In one of the studies, I presented the referendum described above to 300 Dutch students. One half of the research participants read about a political expert who predicted that the referendum would pass and the law would enter into force, and the other half read about a political expert who predicted the opposite—that the proposal would not become law. Participants thought that the forecaster who was more optimistic about the law’s success was more in favor of the law, that he wanted the law to pass and would even vote in favor of the law himself. Interestingly, the information about the forecast also affected whether participants saw the forecaster as more liberal or conservative. The forecaster who was more optimistic about the law’s chances of passing was seen as having more conservative political views than the forecaster who was less optimistic.
People tend to think that others’ predictions reflect their preferences not only in politics but also in other life domains. For example, another study with about 200 American participants showed that people think a person who forecasts a snowy winter wants the winter to be more snowy than a forecaster who predicted less snow. Similarly, someone who predicted success for a certain movie or a kind of sport, that crime rates will decline, or that same-sex marriage will be legalized was perceived to support these particular outcomes.
Are people correct in inferring others’ preferences from their forecasts? Sometimes they are. People’s forecasts about future outcomes are often guided by their personal preferences. For example, people tend to make more optimistic forecasts for their own (vs. an average person’s) future, overestimate the chances of their favorite political party winning elections, and place higher bets on the sports team they root for.
Even though people are often correct in assuming that others’ forecasts reflect their preferences, this is not always the case. In fact, sometimes people make predictions that oppose their preferences. For example, it is not uncommon for proponents of a political party to express pessimism regarding their party’s election success. A recent example is Doug Sosnik, a Democrat, who predicted Donald Trump’s reelection in 2020 in the Washington Post. Such preference-inconsistent predictions can be motivated by a variety of factors, including the fear of jinxing the outcome or tempting fate, an attempt to direct others’ attention towards the possibility of an undesirable outcome in order to urge them to take action to prevent it, or simply the desire to offer an honest and accurate prediction.
Unfortunately, expressing preference-inconsistent predictions might backfire. In one of my studies, American participants read about Jack, an ardent supporter of a fictitious political party in a small European country. Half of the participants learned that Jack thought that the chances that his party will win the next elections are very good, while the other half of the participants learned that Jack believed the chances of his party wining are very slim. Even though Jack was described as a loyal supporter of his party in both cases, expressing pessimism regarding his party’s election success made participants doubt Jack’s support, identification, and loyalty to his party.
Expressing how you see the future might affect how others see you. Making predictions has consequences for people’s reputations, and, in fact, trying to make accurate predictions might leave an inaccurate impression of your preferences and identity.
For Further Reading
Stavrova, O. (2019). Social perception of forecasters: People see forecasts of future outcomes as cues to forecasters’ desires, attitudes, and identity. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(6), 802-810.
Stavrova, O., & Evans, A. M. (2019). Examining the trade-off between confidence and optimism in future forecasts. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 32, 3-14.
Olga Stavrova is assistant professor of social psychology at Tilburg University, the Netherlands