FSG Blog
January 10, 2022

Don’t Expect the Future to be Rational

Kevin McDermott

On the first day of scenario-planning workshops we remind participants that, whatever scenario world they inhabit, they must not forget that in the future human nature has not been repealed.  We will act inconsistently and unpredictably, and still feel entirely logical in our choices.  We will act even as we are acted upon, no matter what our circumstances.

All this came to mind recently while reading The Resisters, the 2020 novel by Gish Jen.  In the world of The Resisters climate change has produced almost perpetual winds.  Rising sea levels have remade both coasts of the United States into archipelagoes.  National boundaries have been redrawn.  Capitalism has succeeded so well that only a third of the population is needed for production.  The other two-thirds are given a life of ease and consumption.

Complications ensue.

The Resisters is set in the near future.  The norms of a free-market democracy are distorted but still recognizable.  There is a legal system, skewed though it is in favor of the top third.  Citizens are constantly watched but oppression is subtle.  Alexa-style devices monitoring every house hand out unsolicited advice but always with the proviso “You have a choice.  You always have a choice.”

The inevitability of illogic

The novel derives its fascination from putting characters into this world and letting them respond in plausible ways.  As we do, these characters treat their lives as a set of problems to solve.  As we do, they act within the constraints of their reality.  As we do, they imagine ways of breaking those constraints.  This is our nature.

Even a stable system is never linear in its dynamic, largely because human behavior makes it that way.  The usefulness of scenario-planning workshops is in the way it accustoms our imaginations to navigating a world in which system dynamics are driven in sometimes irrational ways.

A good example of this are the scenarios we have written in recent years about global pandemics.  In “Code Quebec” for the US Coast Guard, for example, we imagined a world beset by a devastating coronavirus, with context and details eerily similar to our own COVID-19 experience. In that scenario engagement we imagined a mood of “almost manic forgetfulness and celebration” sending crowds back to stadiums, restaurants and bars well before any all-clear signal was apparent. Not exactly rational behavior. Scenario-planning workshops need to allow plenty of room for the human factor to express itself in complex ways.

Building irrationality into scenario-planning workshops is challenging. Inevitably we will miss things. In past pandemic scenarios we assumed people would sensibly abide by recommendations from public-health officials—as, for instance, when vaccines became available everyone would line up to get them. But that is not what happened during COVID-19. Huge numbers of people pushed back against the vaccine, for reasons that feel logical to them.

Even when the facts of a scenario future have gone through the looking glass in comparison with the present we can depend on humans, like the characters in The Resisters, to continue falling in love and worrying about their kids, having ambitions, feeling simultaneously hopeful and fearful, dreaming and shoving back when pushed into a corner.

Scenario planning for a volatile future

Consider the ways we think about climate change.  The evidence is everywhere that the change is well underway.  Second- and third-order effects—what we call “recombinant risks”— are impossible to predict.  Like the characters in The Resisters, our lives go on even as we work at “bending the curve” of climate change.

Leaving us with the question: How do we live now?  How do we plan for a future that we know will be volatile, uncertain and not necessarily governed by rational choices?

We certainly do not do it by taking a deterministic “if this, then that” approach to forecasting.  Human behavior is too unpredictable.  In scenario-planning workshops we do it by trying on alternative futures, seeing how our organizations fare in each one, and distilling common elements that promise future success.

No single scenario will be a perfect fit.  But the imaginative work of inhabiting multiple complex futures will tell us things about operating amid uncertainty that will prepare us to capitalize on whatever the future brings.

Blog Sign-Up

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Expect the Future to be Rational”

  1. Thought-provoking essay. As we seek to make sense of the future, it’s always useful to be reminded of the confounding impacts of human factors – not that they are predictable, just that they’re there, always at work, messing with our rational judgments about what will or could be. It will be interesting to see how the metaverse makers will deal with the messiness of human behavior in their efforts at creating virtual worlds.

  2. Provocative point, Peter.

    We have already had a taste of what it means to overlook the idiosyncratic nature of human logic in the early programming for driverless cars. They were programmed on the proposition that drivers follow the logic of a driver’s manual. (I know, right?) The result was perplexed cars sometimes stalled at four-way intersections not knowing what to do when conditions weren’t as the rules said they were supposed to be.

    Human brains, in contrast, have millennia of improvising our own private logic on the fly in situations we have never seen before. Not always with ideal outcomes, I admit

    The metaverse will be a learning machine. It will be better at learning quirks in human behavior. Its predictive capacity may be unnerving, sort of like that creepy feeling we get when we type a Gmail note and somehow Google knows to suggest almost exactly the string of words we were thinking.

    I consider it a sign of hope that at those moments I will determinedly rewrite my sentence solely to defy Google’s algorithm. It is not rational. But I feel better.


Leave a Comment