Who and What Determines the Future?

John Casti


Laxenburg, Austria

Copernicus's 1543 book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres turned the world upside down (literally) by arguing the exact opposite of the conventional wisdom of his time, namely, that the Sun revolved around the Earth. This presentation turns today's conventional wisdom about how events occur upside down, too. Instead of events driving mass psychology, here I argue that the social mood of a population or group is what drives collective human events. In short, events don't cause events; people in interaction cause events.

The thrust of the argument I make here, which is developed in detail in my recent book Mood Matters, is 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.

Every group has a social mood, its belief about the future, and that mood emerges from forces inside the group, not outside, wherever that may be. That mood in turn strongly biases the collective events that are seen at a later time. This, in a nutshell, is the idea I explore in this presentation.

In the talk I will illustrate the overall idea of social mood biasing events with examples from every walk of life, ranging from the construction of the world's tallest buildings to the decline and fall of globalization. The talk will also address methods for actually measuring the social mood projecting it into the future in order to forecast what's likely or not over different periods of time.

The implications of recent work on wave-like patterns in social phenomena for characterizing and predicting the flow of human events and actions are that all such collective human social events are generated by the changing social mood in a population, and that the changes in this mood follow patterns that are predictable. This fact has led to the emerging field of socionomics, which is nothing less than a "science of surprise". The development of socionomics and its mode of forecasting social trends provides a systematic, coherent tool for predicting changing trends in the overall social mood. The presentation shows that these trends exist on all time-scales---minutes to decades---and can be measured by the gyrations of financial market indexes, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Thus, we can use these ideas to actually predict "surprises", the turning points in social trends.

The take-home message from this presentation is twofold: The future is predictable in exactly the same probabilistic way that the weather is predictable, and that thoughts cause actions and events―not vice-versa! Individual human thoughts are gathered together through the herding instinct hard-wired into every mammalian brain. These individual moods are like "bets" people place about the future. The bets then self-organize into an overall collective social mood, which after an appropriate period of time depending on the nature of the event, gives rise to things like wars, election results and styles in popular culture. This line of argument is exactly the opposite of that usually put forth by academic thinkers, Op-Ed writers, intellectual commentators, and other assorted pundits in their attempts to "explain" the flow of human events. The conventional explanations mostly go from actions to moods to thoughts instead of proceeding in the "socionomic direction", which puts things exactly the other way around.