There’s a principle I’ve come up with over the last couple of years: if you want an accurate prediction about what’s going to happen, ask someone who’s not emotionally invested in the outcome.

I first started thinking about this when I noticed I was frequently right about subjects I didn’t care much about. I could tell you which candidates were going to do well or poorly in the election of a country where I don’t live, or who was going to win a TV cooking show that I was grudgingly watching with my wife.

For anything where the outcome actually matters to me, though, I’m wrong far more than I am right.

Why is that the case? Because if I don’t care, I can consciously consider the facts or rely on unconscious “gut feel” without a strong emotional component. Yet when I’m thinking about a subject I care about, all information gets filtered through my biases and desires and fears – and the conclusion is distorted.

Nobody is immune from this effect – not even the world’s leading authorities on a subject. In a recent podcast interview with Tim Ferriss, Tyler Cowan articulated this well:

Dominant moods and emotions tend to seize hold of us, even if we’re very smart…and often smart people go wrong because they’re just better at feeding more information into their chosen mood. And then they’re likely to screw up. 

Tyler Cowan

I’m not making a “we’re sick of experts” point, but this idea goes a long way to explaining why the most eminent experts are often the most hilariously wrong on predictions relating to politics or economics. They’re extremely well versed in the theory and have access to all the facts…but if they have a strong emotional view on the subject, they can end up being more wrong (and more shocked when they’re wrong) than a random person on the street.

What does this mean for you?

The lesson from this is to be extremely suspicious of your own thinking on a subject you’re emotionally invested in (especially something you’ve made part of your identity) – and even more so if you have lots of information and “facts” about it.

It’s helpful to seek out opposing views – and do so with an attitude of genuinely wanting to have your mind changed, not just to get self-righteously angry or feel superior. But that’s extremely hard to do in practice, so it’s safer just not to stake too much on being correct.

And the secondary lesson might be to place bets on the outcomes of reality TV shows you don’t care about.

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