Science Questions

Can I predict the future?

Mon, 18th May 2015

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Question

Paige Russell asked:

Lately I've been getting a strong feeling when I think something specific is going to happen. Some things are small and irrelevant and some things are quite overwhelming. For example, I was doing my hair for school one morning and had a feeling that my best friend was going to do the exact same hairstyle... and so she did. Is this normal or is there an explanation?

Answer

Kat - So Max, we have another question here for you from Paige Russell who says, “Lately, I've been getting a strong feeling when I think something specific is going to happen. Some things are small and irrelevant and some things are very overwhelming. For example, I was doing my hair for school one morning, I had a feeling my best friend was going to do the exact same hairstyle and she did.” Is this normal? Can Paige predict the future? What do you reckon?

Max - Well, whilst I’d never want to sort of disprove Paige’s ability to predict the future. What I think is going on is a sort of classic psychology cognitive bias which is called confirmation bias. This is a tendency of people to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms a belief or a hypothesis they have and ignore underway those that evidence that sort of doesn’t fit their hypothesis or their beliefs. In essence, that means we choose to believe things that are in agreement with our own beliefs. Importantly, that is the interpretation of information, but also, in this case, the recall of memories. So, the sort of strong feeling she speaks of would only become strong once the feeling has been confirmed. So, in a sense, it becomes true. So, the friend doing the same hairstyle on that day, the memory of having that feeling would become stronger because it actually happened in the same way that on the same day, she may have predicted something else like scoring a goal in some sort of match and because that didn’t happen, she just sort of forgot about it. It’s something actually that psychics take advantage of when they're giving out readings and by giving sort of largely ambiguous statements. The psychic can let confirmation bias do the rest as clients can sort of pick and choose those that apply to their own life.

Chris - Did we talk about deja-vu yet in the programme?

All - [Laughing]

Kat - I am sure we have had this one (question) already!

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Hi Paige,

Yes there is an explanation for this. A lot of people wonder if they have a 'sense' for the future, but what we as humans are REALLY good at is spotting connections and noticing coincidences. A common example is when you think of a friend and that very day they ring you up. Very spooky, but less so when you think about all the hundreds of times you think of someone and they don't call - these times won't stick in your memory because, well, they're pretty dull.

There's an interview with Prof David Spiegelhalter about the science behind 'spooky coincidences' here: http://www.thenakedscientists.com/HTML/content/interviews/interview/1000984/  Georgia, Fri, 13th Feb 2015

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