Anticipation: A New Thread for the Human and Social Sciences?

Anticipation is increasingly at the heart of urgent contemporary debates, from climate change to economic crisis. As societies are less confident that tradition will provide an effective guide to the future, anticipatory practices are coming to the foreground of political, organizational and personal life. Research into anticipation, however, has not kept pace with social demand for insights into these practices. The paper outlines the main contributions to the understanding of anticipation from the human and social sciences, focusing in particular on the most recent developments.

1. Introduction
Anticipation is increasingly at the heart of urgent contemporary debates, from climate change to economic crisis. As societies are less confident that tradition will provide an effective guide to the future, anticipatory practices are coming to the foreground of political, organizational and personal life. Research into anticipation, however, has not kept pace with social demand for insights into these practices, their risks and their uses. The conditions should be created for interdisciplinary collaboration and conceptual development to inform decision-making, strategy formation and societal resilience. To achieve a fuller understanding of the centrality of anticipation to human behaviour a research base must be developed that is capable of assessing and enhancing the potential of anticipatory practices for individuals, organisations and society while mitigating the risks of human behaviour. This research base is in development, but it is fragmented. Bringing researchers together from across disciplines, to explore the question of how humans anticipate, and the risks and uses of such anticipatory practices, will lay the foundation for understanding and creating future-oriented dialogue across disciplines and subsequently enhance decision and policy-making.

A better and more complete understanding of anticipation and its effects will improve theories and models of individual and collective human behaviour and its consequences. The benefits will thus assist those who are explicitly seeking to understand and design ‘the prepared society’, to make a more effective and sustainable use of technologies, to create more inclusive democracies and to explore the boundaries of human endeavours. The ability to anticipate in complex (self-generating, unpredictable) environments greatly improves the resilience of societies facing threats from a global proliferation of institutions, agents and forces, by articulating insecurities through anticipatory processes.

2. A First Surprise
As soon as one starts collecting data on anticipation, the first unexpected surprise perhaps is the finding that over the past century many scholars from many different disciplines and fields have worked on anticipation. (Nadin, 2004); (Zamenopoulos & Alexiou, 2004); (Poli, 2010). The unwelcome result is that nobody has systematically collected and compared the various proposals to date. It may well be that the same phenomenon has been discovered time and again. Even so, it would be interesting to know the differences, if any, among the various phenomena and among the theories purporting to capture them. It may be that different scholars have seen different aspects of anticipation, and a thoroughgoing comparison between the different proposals may help develop a more rounded-out theory. The following notes outline a map of the territory. A former paper of mine (Poli, 2010) provided an even more preliminary, somewhat idiosyncratic, survey, and it included some information on areas not covered by the present sections, such as semiotics (Nadin, 2004), engineering (Camacho & Bordous, 1998); (Astrom & Murray, 2008), and artificial intelligence (Butz, Sigaud, & Gerard, 2003); (Butz, Sigaud, & Baldassarre, 2007). In the meantime I have discovered other areas that have contributed to anticipation, such as language (for which see Streeck and Jordan (2009), a special issue of Discourse Processes), family therapy (Boscolo & Bertrando, 1993; Goldbeter-Merinfeld, 2005; Selvini Palazzoli, Boscolo, Cecchin, & Prata, 1975), and the advanced design approach (Bleecher, 2009; Celi, 2014; de Mozota, 2006; Zamenopoulos & Alexiou, 2004). The next sections cover only some of the main areas of the territory that, for good or ill, are considered the main articulations of the human and social science: namely psychology, anthropology, sociology, and economics. It is patent that much systematic work remains to be done.

3. Psychology
Anticipation is an old friend of psychologists. Herbart claimed that anticipations of sensory effects not only precede voluntary movements but also determine them. This thesis, known as the Ideomotor Principle (IMP), runs contrary to the claim that psychic processes in general are determined by stimuli (i.e. it is at odds with both behaviorism and most of current cognitive psychology; for an overview of IMP see Stock and Stock (2004); for a treatment unfolding the idea that, after all, stimuli may not be as important as mainstream psychology believes see Albertazzi (2013)).

After the prelude represented by Herbart, studies on anticipation in psychology have been conducted only very recently, providing evidence of distinct forms of anticipation in learning, attention, object recognition, and many other cognitive activities (see Hoffmann (2003) for references; for an overview of the impact of anticipations on cognitive development see Butz (2008)).

These studies show that behavior is more goal-oriented than stimulus-driven. In other words, they show that there are robust reasons for challenging one of the main assumptions of cognitive science, namely that stimuli come first. The contemporary version of IMP claims instead that ambient interactions reinforce anticipated outcomes.

Behavioral and cognitive schemata – be they pre-given or acquired – shape the way in which organisms perceive the environment. For this reason they are anticipatory: “Schemata construct anticipations of what to expect, and thus enable the organism to actually perceive the expected information” (Riegler, 2003, p. 13).

However, the most systematic development of anticipation in psychology is the theory of prospection presented by recent research (Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, & Sripada, 2013), a major contribution to a new conception of psychology as a whole. As a matter of fact, during the past decade psychologists have begun a systematic study of people’s orientation towards the future (for a non-technical introduction to time perception see Hammond (2012)). Seligman’s paper, however, has the nature of a paradigm shift, and it will likely provoke heated discussion. The paper’s main aspects are the following:

  • Historical reconstruction of the development of twentieth-century psychology, with a particular focus on the limits of behaviorism and cognitivism;
  • Empirical collection of data, especially on white rats;
  • Presentation of the idea of the ‘prospective brain’ and analysis of its ‘default mode’.

Other aspects include a comparison with and critique of Kahneman and Twersky’s prospect theory (not to be confused with Seligman’s prospection theory) which deals with the prospective reformulation of several psychological disorders and analysis of memory, subjectivity, consciousness, and free will. I am providing this highly compressed summary to show that, whilst in my reconstruction below I will have to be very selective. The paper is worth reading in its entirety.

Prospection, for Seligman, is the representation of possible futures – an idea undeniably close to anticipation. While prospection is a ubiquitous feature of the human mind, much psychological theory and practice has understood human action as determined by the past. According to mainstream psychology, anticipation is seen as “a violation of natural law because the future cannot act on the present” (Seligman et al., 2013). However, “prospection involves no backward causation; rather, it is guidance not by the future itself but by present, evaluative representations of possible future states” (Seligman et al., 2013).

While “viewing behavior as driven by the past was a powerful framework that helped create scientific psychology, … accumulating evidence in a wide range of areas of research suggests a shift in framework, in which navigation into the future is seen as a core organizing principle of animal and human behavior” (Seligman et al., 2013).

If the future indeed becomes a core organizing principle of the mind, the past will have to recede from being a force driving needs and goals to being a resource from which agents “selectively extract information about the prospects they face. These prospects can include not only possibilities that have occurred before but also possibilities that have never occurred” (Seligman et al., 2013, p. 119). To do so, “the prospective organism must construct an evaluative landscape of possible acts and outcomes” (Seligman et al., 2013, p. 120). Moreover, “the success or failure of an act in living up to its prospect will lead not simply to satisfaction or frustration but to maintaining or revising the evaluative representation that will guide the next act” (Seligman et al., 2013, p. 120).

The entire conceptual framework of psychology changes when we shift our focus from the past to the future. Since “at any given moment, an organism’s ability to improve its chances for survival and reproduction lies in the future, not the past … learning and memory, too, should be designed for action. These capacities actively orient the organism toward what might lie ahead and what information is most vital for estimating this” (Seligman et al., 2013, p. 120). Moreover, the focus on expectations helps in reconsidering the role of past experience, which ceases to be seen as a force directly molding behavior and becomes information about possible futures. “Choice now makes sense … stretching well beyond actual experience and enabling them [the rats in the paper’s exemplification, but I see no obstruction towards understanding the claim generically] to improvise opportunistically on the spot” (Seligman et al., 2013, p. 124). There is more than opportunistic improvisation, however: namely the “active, selective seeking of information (‘exploration’)” (Seligman et al., 2013, p. 124).

Furthermore, there is no need to see expectations as limited to conscious processes only. Indeed, “generating simulations of the future can be conscious, but it is typically an implicit process … often not accessible to introspection, and apparently occurring spontaneously and continuously” (Seligman et al., 2013, p. 126).

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