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The Fortune-Telling Error

In Therapy

The fortune-telling error occurs when a child assumes that things in the future will go badly and is convinced that the prediction is an established fact.

This can often end up being a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, where a child’s negative outlook causes things to go badly either because the child is engaging in emotional reasoning and assuming things are bad anyway, or because the child’s prediction of inevitable failure led him to act in ways that brought on the failure.

  • A child predicts that he will fail an upcoming test no matter what. He refuses to study on the grounds that he will fail anyway, and he ends up failing.
  • A child predicts that his mom will be mad at her when she gets home. She acts rudely to her mother and, as a result, her mother is angry.
  • A child gets in trouble at school, which he predicts will lead to more trouble, which will eventually lead to expulsion, which means he won’t be able to get a job, which means he’ll have to steal to get money, which means he’ll end up in jail.

In Critical Thinking

As the final example most explicitly spells out, the fortune-telling error is often simply a slippery slope argument. A slippery slope argument begins with a small first step that is built up into a chain of events, each claimed as the inevitable consequence of the event before it. The slippery slope is so named because the argument keeps sliding further and further inevitably downward with no way to come back up again. It is fallacious because the events following the first step are assumed to be necessary consequences without evidence that they are. It’s not impossible that the sequence of events will occur, but for it to be considered correct, each separate event must be separately justified as a consequence of the prior step. Often this cannot be done because there are simply too many possibilities between each step.

Even when the fortune-telling error contains only a single step, that step is made without prior evidence. Often what originally seems a prediction is confirmed only as a “postdiction;” the prediction is assumed to be true, and then if it is confirmed later, the fortune teller feels validated. The evidence for the claim is found after the claim is made and asserted to be true, which is completely backwards from the way good critical thinking works. Evidence must come first, and one cannot simply assume one knows the future with precision and then look for any evidence that one’s initial claim was correct. This can work with predictions or prophecies, but can also work with any evidence-free claim.

  • A politician asserts that if a certain law is changed, it will open the door to all sorts of other laws being changed, which will open the door to anarchy.
  • A commercial for a cleaning product implies that if you don’t clean your house, people will judge you poorly, and if they judge you poorly, you’ll become a social pariah.
  • A person in the market for a car assumes that the salesman will try to rip him off, and so interprets everything as a rip-off and leaves feeling cheated.
  • A man assumes that his bad dreams are being caused by space aliens, and when he sees a flashing light in the sky, he assumes it is a spaceship. To him, this confirms his initial claim that the dreams are caused by aliens, even though it was only the original claim that caused him to interpret the light as a spaceship.

Bridging the Gap

It’s easy to see how an instance of the fortune-telling error can be little more than an evidence-free assumption for which justification is found after the fact: the child assumes her mother will be angry, and that is confirmed when she mouths off to her mother, which validates, in the child’s mind, her initial prediction. Like any other faulty prediction, the child here is simply making an assertion without evidence, acting as if it is already true,  and when any confirmatory evidence shows up, claiming “I knew it!”

Likewise, a personal chain of failure is exactly a slippery slope as applied to the child’s own future. The chain is built and assumed to be watertight to the point where the child believes that his single spot of trouble at school means he will go to jail. The child, once he has a more positive view of himself and a more realistic view of what kinds of consequences follow from his actions, can be brought to understand how the same argument, applied elsewhere, is equally silly.

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