Positive Feedback Junkie

Yesterday, while grabbing a last half-cup of coffee after an event about political risk assessment, I met a guy who told me he used to work as a futures trader.

“What’s that like?” I asked him.

“Everyone’s different,” he said, and then described a few of the work routines and trading strategies he and his former colleagues had followed.

As he talked about the lifestyle, I recognized some of my own habits. Right now, I’m actively forecasting on at least five different platforms. Together, three of those—the Early Warning Project’s opinion pool, the Good Judgment Project, and Inkling’s public prediction market—cover an almost-absurd array of events and processes around the world, from political violence to trade agreements, election outcomes, and sporting contests. To try to do well on all of those platforms, I have to follow news from as many sources as I can about all kinds of places and organizations. I also forecast on this blog. Here, the prognostications are mostly annual, but they’re public, too, so the results directly affect my professional reputation. The events I forecast here are also rare, so the reputational consequences of a hit or miss will often linger for weeks or months. The fifth platform—the stock market—requires yet-another information set and involves my own real money.

One of the things the Good Judgment Project has found is that subject-matter expertise isn’t reliably associated with higher forecasting accuracy, but voraciously consuming the news and frequently updating your forecasts are. The term “information junkie” comes to mind, and I think the junkie part may be more relevant than we let on. When you’re trying to anticipate the news, there’s a physiological response, an amped-up feeling you get when events are moving quickly in a situation about which you’ve made a forecast. I recognize that cycle of lulls and rushes from a short flirtation with online, play-money poker more than a decade ago, and I sometimes get it now when a blog post gets a burst of attention. When things are slow and nothing relevant seems to be happening, there’s an edginess that persists and pulls you into searching for new information, new opportunities to forecast, new levers to push and then wait for the treat to drop. I’ve also noticed that this feeling gets amplified by Twitter. There, I can see fresh information roll by in real time, like a stock ticker for geopolitics if you follow the right mix of people. I can also chase little rushes by dropping my own tweets into the mix and then watching for retweets, responses, and favorites.

When I started college, I thought I would major in biology. I had really enjoyed math and science in high school, had done well in them, and imagined making a career out of those interests and what seemed like talents. First semester of freshman year, I took vector calculus and chemistry. I also behaved like a lot of college freshman, not working as hard as I had in high school and doing some other things that weren’t especially good for my cognitive skill and accumulation of knowledge. As the semester rolled by, I found that I wasn’t doing as well as I’d expected in those math and science classes, but I was doing very well in my social-science and Russian-language courses. After freshman year, I didn’t take another math or natural-science class in college, and I graduated three years later with a degree in comparative area studies.

Sometimes I regret my failure to chase that initial idea a little harder. When that happens, I explain that failure to myself as the result of a natural impulse to seek out and stay close to streams of positive feedback. I see the same impulse in my forecasting work, and I see it in my own and other people’s behavior on social media, too. It’s not freedom from stress we’re seeking. The absence of stress is boredom, and I don’t know anyone who can sit comfortably with that feeling for long. What I see instead is addictive behavior, the relentless chase for another hit. We’re okay with a little discomfort, as long as the possibility of the next rush hides behind it, and the rush doesn’t have to involve money to feel rewarding.

After the guy I met yesterday had described some traders’ work routines—most of which would probably sound great to people in lots of other jobs, and certainly to people without jobs—I asked him: “So why’d you leave it?”

“Got tired of always chasin’ the money,” he said.

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3 Comments

  1. Interesting read! Thanks for that perspective🙂 love the ending too.

    Reply
  2. So do you have statistics on the accuracy of your predictions/forecasts?

    Reply
    • Mostly, yes. Not on the occasional blogged judgment, but all of the forecasts I generate from statistical models are scored, and all of the opinion pool and prediction markets give regular feedback on accuracy, too. Ditto for the stock market, but in a different form, of course.

      One of the things the Good Judgment Project has shown is that this feedback can help you get a lot better at the task. Presumably, that depends on paying attention to it and thinking about how to improve. So I try to do that, although it admittedly gets harder the more topics you try to cover and the more balls you have in the air at the same time.

      Reply

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