Could a "Theory Of Mind" predict future history, based on looking at how people think and behave? It may have helped forecast World War II and our current econom-ick. Is psychohistory finally coming to pass?

Writing in the New York Times the other day, Robert J. Shiller says that the same kind of understanding of the way people behave seems to have helped journalist Johannes Steel predict World War II in 1934, and Obama aide Lawrence Summers to predict our current economic meltdown in 1989:

Rather than depending exclusively on quantitative analysis, this method relies on a "theory of mind" - defined by cognitive scientists as humans' innate ability, evolved over millions of years, to judge others' changing thinking, their understandings, their intentions, their pretenses. It is a judgment faculty, quite different from our quantitative faculties.

This sounds somewhat less statistically based than the theory of psychohistory, as expounded by Isaac Asimov, but still somewhat similar in terms of trying to predict mass behavior using psychology as well as other factors:


Psycho-history dealt not with man, but with man-masses. It was the science of mobs; mobs in their billions. It could forecast reactions to stimuli with something of the accuracy that a lesser science could bring to the forecast of a rebound of a billiard ball. The reaction of one man could be forecast by no known mathematics; the reaction of a billion is something else again.

Hari Seldon plotted the social and economic trends of the time, sighted along the curves and foresaw the continuing and accelerating fall of civilization and the gap of thirty thousand years that must elapse before a struggling new Empire could emerge from the ruins.

Certainly, Asimov turns out to have been a major influence on one of the current crisis' most prescient forecasters, Princeton economist Paul Krugman. From a recent profile in Newsweek:

Krugman says he found himself in the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, especially the "Foundation" series-"It was nerds saving civilization, quants who had a theory of society, people writing equations on a blackboard, saying, 'See, unless you follow this formula, the empire will fail and be followed by a thousand years of barbarism'."