Who and what determines the future?

June 22, 2010

Suppose you could predict: - which incumbent presidents would win or lose re-election? - which genres of pop stars would next rule the airwaves and movie screens? - the ups and downs of the economy?

How much would this ability be worth to companies, governments, cultural leaders and every person affected by such events?

It is no accident that "futurists" of all types (including economists and political analysts) fail at prediction. They get excited at major peaks in society and predict all kinds of wonderful things at the very moment a downturn is imminent. Then they get cynical at major bottoms in society and predict doom and gloom when in fact an upturn is just around the corner. Clearly the failure of futurists to anticipate change, indeed their long record of predicting pretty much the opposite of what actually occurs, has immense social and personal costs. All that is wrong with social prediction today is due to one simple error: the presumption that "events" cause social moods and trends. This assumption, in fact, like the predictions it produces, is exactly backward.

A new book Mood Matters by John Casti makes the radical assertion that all social events ranging from trends in popular music and art to the outcome of presidential elections and even the rise and fall of great civilizations are biased by the attitudes a society holds toward the future. When the "social mood" is positive and people look forward to the future, events of an entirely different character tend to occur than when society is pessimistic and fearful of the future.

Most people think that the outcome of elections causes the mood of the country to change. The opposite is true: The mood of the country determines the outcome of elections. Most people think that a plethora of happy popular music on the charts makes the public happy and that a plethora of depressing popular music on the charts makes the public depressed. The opposite is true: A happy public pushes happy songs up the charts, and a depressed public pushes depressing songs up the charts. Most people think that a productive economy makes people optimistic and that an unproductive economy makes people pessimistic. The opposite is true: Optimistic people make a productive economy, and pessimistic people make an unproductive one.

It sounds so simple, yet no one in the social sciences has made this case--until now. Mood Matters tells the story of why human events happen the way they do and not some other way, showing how it is the collective mood of a population, its social mood, that biases the events that we can expect to see.

Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, said, "I am an assiduous reader of John Casti's books as they provide a complex‑system perspective on things, in addition to being very pleasant to read. He is a real scientific intellectual."

John L. Casti received his doctorate from the University of Southern California. He is a Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, where he works on the creation of early-warning methods for extreme events in human society. He is also the co-founder of The Kenos Circle, a Vienna-based society for exploration of the future, and author of several best-selling books. He lives in Vienna.
John L. Casti
Mood Matters: From Rising Skirt Lengths to the Collapse of World Powers
2010, 250 p. 60 illus., 30 in color., Hardcover $27.50, EUR 27.95, £19.99.
ISBN: 978-3-642-04834-0

The author is available for interview.


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