Writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls the phenomenon of people being unable to predict the future based on the past the Black Swan principle. This name is inspired by the the 17th Century early explorers. People in Europe had always assumed that all swans were white. Imagine their surprise when they found that black swans that existed in other parts of the world. What had hitherto been considered unthinkable suddenly became a reality.
Taleb’s Black Swan principle is not really a model. It is a straight out rejection of the cause and effect principle that governs most interactions. It reminds us that people tend to stick closely to the institutions and so-called pillars of society, when in fact it is possible that these institutions are not infallible, permanent and always there for us.
In his 1912 book, The Problems of Philosophy philosopher Bertrand Russell used the analogy of a chicken to explain this idea. A chicken being fed by hand every day assumes that it will always be fed every day. It believes that humans are kind. Nothing in the chicken’s life points to the fact that one day it will be killed for its meat.
“The inability to predict outliers implies the inability to predict the course of history”― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
In the same way, we as a human species are currently living through a Black Swan event. Nothing in our lives up until now pointed to the reality we are currently in. Other than the warnings of experts, the (then) far-fetched ideas of disaster preppers and the silly disaster films we have all seen could have prepared us for this.
The benefit of hindsight in the Black Swan Model
Another Black Swan event was 9/11. Nobody could have predicted that terrorists would fly planes into the Twin Towers. However in hindsight, it seemed that a whole confluence of events pointed strongly towards the attack.
In coming weeks, based on this model, I think people will be putting together theories and evidence about why this Covid19 was bound to happen eventually.
Key take away
If the Black Swan Model is anything to go by. In the 21st Century, we need to continue to expect the unexpected. We need to use wisdom and understand that we cannot see too far into the future. Two other highly probable Black Swan events spring to mind – The meteoric rise of A.I and the destruction of our natural environment throughout the world.
Adapted and extrapolated from (the incredible): The Decision Book: Fifty Models of Strategic Thinking by Mikael Krogerus & Roman Tschappeler along with the also incredible book: The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb