Emotion explains some of our crappy predictions

201601-pexels-freeway-long-exposure-time-exposureI took my son to the store on Sunday, partly because we needed things, and partly to get him out of the house. He had a bit of cabin fever. A quick trip to the store means he can be a maniac somewhere besides our house.

I took the freeway on the way home. As I got closer to my exit, two left lanes were closed. Then a third lane was closed. Traffic was piling up as multiple lanes of traffic had to merge.

A funny thing happens when traffic quickly becomes unfavorable…people panic. Maybe it’s not panic. Maybe it’s just anger or frustration. But people make some whacky decisions.

In this case, as traffic slowed to a crawl, people started exiting the freeway…without having a proper exit. They drove over the grass, and then the curb, to get to the feeder. So many people exited this way that traffic on the feeder ground to a halt.

I remained on the freeway. Sure enough, a few minutes later, I got to my exit. I arrived at the traffic light well before many of the folks that drove over grass and curbs to make up lost time.

Why am I telling this story? Because people make whacky decisions when circumstances turn unfavorable. In this case, free flowing traffic abruptly changed to crawling traffic. The quick change in conditions caused people to quickly change their minds. Traveling on the freeway was no longer worth it.

If these drivers had taken a moment to survey, and see how many people were escaping the freeway, and how many people were piling up on the feeder…they would have seen the advantage of staying the course. They could have looked farther ahead and seen that after the quick merge, traffic flow picked back up pretty quickly. It’s the inflection of merging that disrupts traffic. Once the lanes have collapsed, cars rapidly pick up speed.

Here’s how emotion interfered with drivers’ decisions. Traffic went from fast to slow. The resulting anger or frustration made people think they had to change their situation drastically to compensate for unfavorable traffic. But, if those drivers had allowed the emotional reaction to pass, they would have seen that their initial decision, to travel on the freeway, was still the most advantageous decision.

I think of two takeaways, in terms of making quality predictions:

  1. Don’t always assume the future will look like the present. In many cases it will. In some cases, an inflection will appear. You often won’t see inflections in advance. But consider what kinds of inflections might arise, and under what conditions they might arise. Consider the likelihood of those conditions appearing. Your prediction might change.
  2. Just because your circumstances change doesn’t mean your prediction needs to change. It’s unlikely your situation changed in isolation. Think of the whole system, where small changes in any one part can initiate larger changes elsewhere. The right call in this case might be to change your prediction. It might not. Make the call deliberately, as best you can in the absence of emotion.

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