futures studies

Futures studies and the psychology of loss

Eric Garland Futures Studies 5 Comments

When you begin working in the discipline of futures studies, you immediately dive into the mechanics of organizing data. You learn about how to identify reliable trend information from a good source. You realize that forecasts need to be pulled apart, not worshiped. Then you shift to your right brain and enjoy the thrill of building scenarios to explore what all of this forward-looking information really means, going far beyond the vast majority of current analysis. The process is thrilling, especially early on.

Then, once you’ve actually worked in the field for a while, you realize that the mechanical stuff is, at most, ten percent of the work. The other ninety percent is in deep, interpersonal psychology, a field that is not nearly as neat and clean, and one in which professional analysts have almost no experience. Thus when futurists are released into the wild we are caught flat-footed and shocked when we are thrown off stage after showing a chart depicting global aging populations because a silver-haired, sixty-something company president refuses to hear about the march of time – something that happened to me at an insurance company.

Or when I was asked to present on the future of risk assessment for an American bank’s board of directors meeting and after leading with “the financial sector learned about the insufficiency of its risk management models in 2008,” the CEO declared that there was no point in continuing since they knew everything they needed to manage future risk – and also, I was wrong about there being a problem in 2008. So I could just, like, stop talking and they’d send the check anyhow. We thought we wanted to know about the future but now we realize we know everything, so isn’t that great!

"Thank you for stopping by our meeting on the future of risk management."

“Thank you for stopping by our meeting on the future of risk management.”

Crazy and unprofessional on their part? Well, sure – but now I think about how I was partially at fault for not realizing the degree to which futurists and strategic analysts are as much more therapists and grief counselors than they are trend data wranglers. Our training goes into scenario planning and how to dovetail with Balanced Scorecard and impact-probability matrices, but then we find ourselves needing to know how to run a group therapy meeting where the whole room comes together and deals with how they feel about the loss of control implicit in whichever future is being discussed.

“Why would you want to believe it?”

Back in 2002, one of my dear friends was struck with late-stage gastric cancer in her mid-twenties. It was a rotten turn of events. She neither smoked nor drank, was as cheerful and quirky as the day was long, and seemed to get happier with every passing year. Then, she stopped eating, and the cause was a tumor on the verge of metastasis.

As a long-time EMT, she had somewhat of a fascination with morbidity and mortality and inexplicably didn’t mind chemotherapy all that much. She was a remarkably pleasant patient for the attendings and med students trying their first procedures. Despite her cheerful attitude, the disease had its way with her.

One of my life’s happiest moments was when our friends all gathered for a last hurrah of science fiction movies and red wine. We had a ball, and my friend’s condition actually improved remarkably. Attached to oxygen tanks and under 100 pounds, she openly fretted about her credit cards and where she might live that fall.

I was stunned. Credit cards? Year-long leases? Was she not aware of what was going on? The following day I mentioned her reaction to a friend of mine who worked as a hospice social worker. The phrase she used stuck with me forever:

Well, why would you want to believe it?

What do you mean? You don’t get to just want to believe things. They are just true and obvious, right?

She’s in the prime of her life, barely begun to see the world and all of that is being stolen from her. It’s a tragedy, a crime. Why should she dignify that tragedy by believing in it? Why not just say, screw you, I’ve got credit cards to worry about and an apartment for next year lined up. That thinking is more useful than being accurate.

She was right of course – people decide to believe or reject certain narratives all of the time based on something very different than objective facts. This is a distinctly human trait, and a very normal one. It took me years to realize that this psychological defense was directly applicable in talking about the future with leaders.

The loss and grief inherent in futures studies

It is important to realize that futurists, strategists, and visionaries are quite unique. Such professionals in describing strategic-level change are by their very nature comfortable with disruption and evolution; it’s what draws us to the field in the first place. It is also a rather unique way of thinking for a species that is hierarchical to its core. In terms of importance, change management pales in comparison to the maintainance of hierarchical position because in order to make decisions for the future, one must maintain position in the tribe. Throughout human social organizations around the world and all through history, the study of systemic change has always been an unusual skillset, professed by few. The emperor might have one soothsayer, but thousands of soldiers. A corporation has hundreds of accountants and marketing executives, but perhaps only a handful of strategic thinkers. That said, futurists tend to underplay just how different their native mindset is regarding the contemplation of dramatic, often-painful changes, and they subsequently under prepare for the resistance they are about to encounter.

In the past two decades of work in futures studies, I have had thousands of different conversations about the future. Whenever a conversation turns to some form of resistance and denial, there is always an undercurrent loss and grief. Chances are, the person with whom you are speaking is subconsciously calculating the implications of what you are suggesting, and they are intuitive that they stand to lose something dear to them, most likely to do with hierarchical rank. Here are a few of the emotional reactions I have discovered over the years.

1. Fear of obsolescence and mortality

One day, it'll be gone - just like you. Sorry to remind you.

One day, it’ll be gone – just like you. Sorry to remind you.

If you are talking about the future to someone over the age of forty, there is an baseline implication that will cause resistance to a discussion of major change: “I don’t fit into this new world.” By describing any serious change to how the world operates, you are reminding a person of the inexorable passage of time, that one day they will be of an older era, and that they will eventually die.

It’s not to say that when you tell a fifty-six-year old that, “at some point they will stop printing the phone book,” that the lack of a phone book will kill them. However, stating that something they’ve know their whole lives will cease to exist is a tacit reminder that nothing is forever and that at some point they too will be like that phone book. This may be why you might hear, “Nonsense, you’ll always need a directory for how to contact people!” despite the existence of mobile phones and Google. This denial is a cheap and easy bulwark against burdensome thoughts of mortality.

2. Fear of knowing obsolete skills

Our economy is deeply divided between those with in-demand technical skills, such as cardiothoracic surgery or shooting 94% from the free throw line, and those who do not. One group is lavishly rewarded, the other given a baseline wage. Moreover, as specialization in society increases, technical knowledge takes a very long time to acquire and changing careers is not simple. Once you are a cardiothoracic surgeon, it is not easy to simply become a designer of nuclear power plants. Exchanging a career that demands technical expertise for one of lesser skill means a big cut in prestige and compensation.

There's still a market in horseshoes and tack, but electric cars are a bigger business.

There’s still a market in horseshoes and tack, but electric cars are a bigger business.

When you tell anyone that the world is changing in a significant way, you are very often telling them that they lack the specialized knowledge that will be required to succeed in the future. By definition they can’t already be an expert in that world. If you’ve been a television executive for thirty-four years and somebody in 2002 tells you about Netflix (which closed today at $622 a share) revolutionizing the world of content, you’re faced with a major problem – you don’t know how to be an expert in a world where the line between Internet and television blurs. Sure, maybe you’ll learn – or maybe you’ll be a dinosaur, devoured by new creature more familiar with this strange new future.

Instead of dealing with this, you could always just call such a future ridiculous – something that people do on a regular basis a defense mechanism.

3. Fear of loss of social rank

Most of this fear and loathing over relatively anodyne forecasts is a deep-seated terror that you will sink lower on the hierarchy. In the case of expert skills, there is a fear about not being able to justify a leadership position or a fat salary. If you suggest that people who optimize web pages for search engines will drive more revenue than sales people, you’re telling a salesman that not only will her skills be obsolete, but that her prestige will disappear simultaneously. A fight will ensue to protect that rank. This happens around a wide variety of topics.

4. Fear of loss of security and comfort


“I just don’t see why you think big box retail is obsolete.”

People especially hate to hear that the future will be strange and unknown. We hear that the automobile may no longer be the dominant way to get around a city, and Americans imagine a weird, cold, discomfiting future at bus stops or trolleys yet to be built. Tell people that Wall Street appears to be better at transferring wealth to a few rather than growing wealth for many, and there is often great anger because that’s where so many retirement funds are located, and we do not have a better alternative as a storage of value waiting in the wings. Tell them that big box retail was better suited to the late 1990s than the future and watch the sparks fly.

No matter how well founded your future visions, you are telling people that their comfortable assumptions are about to be replaced by a world in which they have not yet learned to cope. There is no guarantee that they will like what’s coming over the horizon, so they have a great interest in denying such change at some level.

It’s your job to lead people to the future

These seem like daunting challenges to any attempt at foresight, but there is way around this endemic problem of human brains dealing with human problems. For lack of a better term, I think that what’s required is maturity. Whoever is leading the strategic change of an organization, from a country on down to a small business, needs to be aware of these facets of psychology so that such resistance can be identified and dealt with. If you’re thinking that your expertise is in technology foresight, not grief counseling, well too bad – it’s the hidden part of the job description.

You aren’t just asking people to understand that fracking wells decline faster than the megafields of Mexico and Saudi Arabia, and therefore Peak Oil wasn’t overblown – you’re asking people to accept that major parts of their life may change. You’re asking them to accept that their consumption of goods and services and their very prosperity may be at risk. In a sense, you need to be there as they grieve the loss of their assumptions and (false) sense of security. And you might be wise to sell them something better in its place. You can dialogue sincerely about what may be lost, but also what may be gained. Luckily, as we can tell by the success of lottery tickets, humans can also be seduced as much by gain maximization as by loss reduction. This job should be split equally between the futurists identifying the strategic trends and the executives leading the change management itself. A successful process will require the neutrality of outside consultants as well as the credibility of the executive champion.

Does it really require psychology of this depth to talk about the role of solar panels on city design, or of RFID tags on retail? Yes, because chances are these changes won’t just be about the technology, but about changing lives. You need to predict the potential psychological impact and learn to mitigate it in order to improve outcomes for a complex organization. But that’s OK – if you’re in this business, you probably dig predictions.

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