The Uncertainty Illusion

Published in the Washington Post, November 4, 2016

Dan Gardner and Philip E. Tetlock

It’s hard to recall another time as uncertain as this.

Americans are worried that they are vulnerable to terrorist attacks , that they won’t have enough money to retire or pay medical bills , that jobs are becoming less secure and that the next generation will be worse off financially than their parents . And they are downright frightened by the election.

About the only thing partisans agree on is that a victory for the other side would be a catastrophe. There has been talk of insurrection, national collapse, even nuclear war. Unsurprisingly, a Washington Post tracking poll finds 61 percent of likely voters worry about Donald Trump becoming president, and 56 percent are anxious about the possibility of a President Hillary Clinton. The American Psychological Association reportsthat 52 percent of American adults are experiencing election-related stress. “I’ve been in private practice for 30 years, and I have never seen patients have such strong reactions to an election,” clinical social worker Sue Elias told the New York Times.

But here’s a consoling thought: We’ve felt this way before. Many times.

The Age of Uncertainty” was a best-selling book and TV series by John Kenneth Galbraith in 1977. “The Age of Anxiety” was W.H. Auden’s famous book-length poem, written 30 years before that. The Greek historian Polybius lamented that there was more change and uncertainty in his time than ever before — his time being more than a century before Jesus was born.

Look at the records from almost any year, and you will find the perception that that moment was unusually uncertain, perhaps more so than ever. That’s not because uncertainty constantly ratchets up. It’s because people routinely fall victim to what we call the uncertainty illusion.

In the present, looking toward the future, we sense, correctly, that we are living amid profound uncertainty. There is always so much we don’t know about what’s coming and so much that could go wrong. That’s unsettling, to such an extent that people sometimes express relief when a bad possibility — “you may have cancer” — is confirmed. To try to get a handle on how worried we should be, we tend to compare the present with the past. And when we look back, we tend to see much less uncertainty — not because there necessarily was less, but because hindsight bias drains the appearance of uncertainty.

If you were asked today how likely it is that Clinton will win the election, you might guess there’s a 70 percent chance. Months later, asked to recall your forecast, you probably would misremember — in a predictable direction. If Clinton won, you’d recall that you thought it more likely that she would. If Trump prevailed, you’d recall guessing that Clinton’s chances were slimmer.

Hindsight bias makes the past look more predictable. Of course President Obama beat Mitt Romney in 2012. Of course the Arab Spring swept the Middle East in 2011. Of course the housing bubble burst, the invasion of Iraq was a fiasco and the Y2K bug fizzled.

Even history’s biggest shocks look obvious after the fact. In 1988, one of us (Tetlock) asked experts to forecast how likely it was that the Soviet Communist Party would lose power within the next five years. In 1991, that happened. It was an immense surprise to almost everyone. A year later, Tetlock asked the experts to recall how likely they thought it was before it happened. Their answers were riddled with hindsight bias. In memory, they knew it all along.

Because it’s difficult to fully appreciate the uncertainty of the past, it becomes easy to conclude that the present is unusually uncertain, even uniquely so.

Clinton supporters at a rally in Florida respond to WikiLeaks revelations. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Dig into the archives, and you can find evidence of the uncertainty illusion in some surprising times and places. Consider 1958, the middle of the Eisenhower era, remembered today as a particularly quiet year in a prosperous and placid time. And yet, as the second season of “Leave It to Beaver” aired on the nation’s black-and-white televisions, Newsweek published a cover story about nostalgia for 30 years earlier. “In 1958, with its anxieties and uncertainties, the ’20s have suddenly become a Golden Era, not only to the oldsters who lived through it but to the youngsters who can only guess what it was like,” the editors wrote.

If the uncertainty illusion inspired only nostalgia for old jazz, it wouldn’t be worth discussing. But an exaggerated perception of uncertainty can make people less willing to take risks or make ambitious plans. It can persuade businesses to sit on cash rather than invest, hire and expand. Collectively, such conservatism can be a drag on economic growth, making us all poorer.

The uncertainty illusion can also heighten intergenerational misunderstanding. “Mine was a world that still seemed anchored in a reassuring permanence,” First Things editor R.R. Reno wrote of his experience as a young baby boomer. “Young people today experience the opposite. Impermanence is everywhere.” Similarly, a recent New York Times story noted that millennials think they face greater challenges than boomers did, because, to give one example, climate change represents an “unprecedented . . . threat to the entire planet.” There’s no recognition that boomers came of age with the twin planetary threats of nuclear war and mass starvation.

But perhaps the worst damage the uncertainty illusion can do is to boost reactionary politics. The core propaganda of every European far-right party promotes fear of present threats and contrasts them with an imagined golden age in the past free of such terrors. That’s central to Trump’s pitch, too. He doesn’t want to make America great. He wants to make it great again.

Trump never specifies when he thinks America was great or when America lost its greatness. But a Pew survey conducted in August found that 81 percent of Trump supporters believed life was better for people like them 50 years ago. (Nineteen percent of Clinton supporters agreed.) Of course, some things for some groups are indeed worse today. It is harder for an unskilled worker to get a highly paid job in manufacturing. Still, on balance, 2016 beats 1966 hands down. Life expectancy is higher today, as are household incomes, even for those at the bottom of the ladder. In fact, by these and other basic measures — from share of income spent on necessities to air quality and education — the great majority of Americans are clearly better off today than 50 years ago.

To be sure, uncertainty does vary, so a given moment may, objectively, be more uncertain than one in the past. But if we are not to fall victim to the uncertainty illusion, gut-level feelings are no way to judge. A rigorous exploration of evidence is essential. So is a willingness to accept that even strong perceptions and feelings may be dead wrong.

Psychologists know that this is asking a lot of anyone. One solution is sweetly old-fashioned: Keep a diary. By writing down your thoughts and feelings daily, you create an immutable record that may be consulted years or decades later. People who have done this are routinely surprised by the gaps between what they remember feeling and what they wrote at the time. Maybe you really did think the Y2K bug was no big deal in 1999. Or maybe you’ve forgotten stocking up on canned food and ammunition. Yes, memory is that fallible. But diaries don’t forget.

Neither do archives. The 1990s are collectively remembered today as a decade of giddy optimism, in marked contrast to the present. That may seem so obvious that it’s not necessary to do any verification. And yet, in March 1995, 58 percent of Americans said they expected the future to be worse for the next generation; only 16 percent said it would be better. When the same question was asked this August, 49 percent of voters said the future would be worse; 24 percent said it would be better. “The past is a foreign country,” the British novelist L.P. Hartley wrote. Don’t assume you understand it, even if you once lived there.

As valuable as facts and figures are, understanding the past requires more. It takes imagination and empathy.

“Can’t you feel the fears I’m feelin’ today,” wailed Barry McGuire in the classic protest song “Eve of Destruction.” His fears then are not our fears today, but if we listen with an open mind, we can feel them. “If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away / There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave.” That’s frightening. And a lot of people felt as McGuire did. “Eve of Destruction” was a big hit in 1965 — a time that so many Americans think was better than today.

As we peer into an uncertain future, we may realize that the uncertainty of the past is not so different from our own.