The Predictive Fallacy

A cool data-visualization website called Information Is Beautiful has a page titled “Rhetological Fallacies: Errors and manipulations of rhetoric and logical thinking.” Here’s a taste:

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If the creator, David McCandless, ever does Fallacies 2.0, I hereby suggest an addition, “Appeal to Predictability: Purporting to score a blow against an opponent by accurately divining something(s) he or she has said, or predicting what he or she will say.”

The only source I’ve found that has commented on this phenomenon is, predictably, the remarkable site It has an entry called “Impossibly predictive,” with this definition:

A friend or someone else who knows a character well will tell another person how the first character will react to some piece of news. Often, he will quote the character’s reaction directly. Later on, when the first character receives the news, he or she will react exactly, down to the letter, how the friend said he would. Similarly, this trope can often involve one character preemptively pantomiming a character’s response as they stand behind them, showing off exactly how predictable their friend is (or how well they know him or her). This trope could also involve a predictable character’s friend finishing his sentences for him. If they’re really showing off, they will have the response written beforehand to show them. Finally, this trope is illustrated when a person counts down “three … two … one … ” to the other character having a reaction about something.

If this does not ring a bell with you, then you have never watched a situation comedy. In fact, it’s become such a stale clam that any self-respecting modern sitcom can only use it in a self-conscious, meta way. A TV Tropes reader posted this example from the series Just Shoot Me (I recommend you sample some of the links, which lead to other TV Tropes entries):

Jack: Morning, boys.
Finch: Yes!
Eliot: Damn. (pays up to Finch)
Finch: (boogie dancing) I told you! He never says ‘good,’ only ‘morning’!
Jack: Ha!
Eliot: Damn! (pays up to Jack)
Finch: What?
Jack: I knew you’d dance like a jackass before noon! Come to poppa!
Eliot: Yes!
Finch: Nooo! (pays up to Eliot)
Jack: What?
Finch: Who says ‘come to poppa’?!
Jack: Everyone says ‘come to poppa’!”
Eliot: And again!
Finch: No, no, you didn’t say I have to pay every time.
Jack: So are you questioning the rules?
Finch: You’re freakin’ right.
Jack: YES!
Eliot: Daaamn!(pays up again)

This is all good fun. But I submit it’s rhetorically fallacious. That is, the trope implies that there’s something inherently wrong with being predictable. And it’s true, predictability can be correlated with a propensity for cliches or for automatic, mindless language tics, as with Dickens characters. But not always and not necessarily. If I wanted to mock a Zen master, I could nudge my friend and comment, “Check him out. Dollars to donuts he’ll say, ‘To achieve enlightenment, you must lose your ego.’” And he would say it, and my friend and I would chortle. But it would still be true that to achieve enlightenment, you must lose your ego.

What got me thinking about all of this is something that recently appeared on Jim Romenesko’s blog about journalism and the media. Two punks students at Boston University College of Communication wrote to Romenesko, “We’ve listened to our fair share of self-righteous, out-of-touch journalist guest speakers, so we created this bingo board”:

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Ouch. I am a journalism professor and I have said some version of virtually every Bingo box’s contents. But, see, they’re true! Really, they are!

The appeal to predictability may be a fallacy, but it’s pretty darned effective, as my defensiveness reveals. When you’re skewered like that, any degree of protesting is probably already too much.

When I give a guest lecture, I try to conclude, “What’s the takeaway?” So what’s the takeaway? On the plus side, the fact that the two guys mocked the points in such a pitch-perfect way means they really absorbed them. Also, the chart is sharp; if my students could make fun of me so adeptly, I would be extremely impressed. As one Romenesko commenter said, “I see j-school has added snark to the curriculum, rather than allowing cub reporters to develop it organically on the job. I am OK with this.”

All seriousness aside, I take the admonition that in speaking to students, or anyone, it’s not good to be self-righteous or full of yourself or to mouth truisms or bromides that you remember you remember you believe. Yeats wrote that “the best lack all conviction”; but conviction is the least that should be expected from an educator.

And finally, I’m trying my best not to take Cliche Bingo as a personal attack. After all, to achieve enlightenment, you must lose your ego.

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