The Confusing Terms We Use When Thinking About the Future

One of the fundamental keys to human progress has been our capacity to think about the future. Yet when we try to get more specific about just how we do this, confusing terminology often gets in the way of clear thinking.

With that in mind, let’s take a brief look at some commonly encountered terms.

“Prospection” is a broad term that refers to the generation and assessment of mental representations about the future. Its opposite is “retrospection”, which is focused on the past.

“Anticipation” and “anticipatory thinking” are more commonly used terms that have the same broad meaning as prospection.

“Prefactual Thinking” is narrower than prospection, and is specifically focused on “action-outcome” causal processes, in the same manner that they are used in “counterfactual thinking” when looking back at the past. Both prefactual and counterfactual thinking often have a significant emotional component involving regret -- either how it could have been avoided in the past or how it can be avoided in the future.

“Foresight” has been defined as “the ability to foresee or prepare wisely for the future; prescience.” Put differently, it relates to the accuracy of our prospections, or lack thereof.

In general terms, a “Forecast” is a statement about the state or states of a system at some point in the future.

Forecasts can be categorized using many different criteria.

Using different levels of aggregation is one approach. For example, strategic forecasts tend to focus on what may happen and why; operational forecasts describe how these “whats” could occur; and tactical forecasts focus on questions of who, when, and where associated with each of these “hows”.

A second basis for categorizing forecasts is their specificity. A “prediction” is the logical deductive consequence if a causal hypothesis is true. In other words, If Cause, then Effect.

A looser form of prediction is that a future state or outcome has a high (low) likelihood because it is a logical consequence of many (few) causal hypotheses that could be true. In other words, If Cause 1 or Cause 2, etc., then Effect.

Other forecasts (such as those based on scenarios) present a range of possible effects that could be observed in the future depending on which of a number of causal hypotheses is true. In other words, If Cause 1, then Effect 1; If Cause 2, then Effect 2, etc.

Finally, forecasts can also be categorized based on the methodology that was used to produce them (e.g., quantitative versus qualitative approaches). This also includes forecasts that result from combining the outputs of multiple methodologies (which is typically done to increase accuracy).
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