SOC 87  Freshman Seminar                                                              Prof. Akos Rona-Tas

Tuesdays 10:30-12:20                                                                                   SSB 414

Office Hours:

T 5:00-5:50

Th 11:30-12:20


Predicting the Future from Tarot Cards to Algorithms: A Sociological Introduction


No one can see the future, but everyone must try. We must predict the future every day.  We brush teeth predicting fewer cavities, choose spouse anticipating happiness. Loan clerks, college admission officers, stockbrokers, and parole boards predict for a living, betting on future outcomes. We look at ways people try to peek into the future.


We will meet 5 times. Each time there are readings that you have to read before we meet (except for the first week). We will use these readings as jump-off points for our seminar discussions.

At the second seminar you will make three predictions:

1. The winner of the Grammy in a category of your choice (January 26),

2. The winner of the Super Bowl (February 2),

3. A company stock of your choice on February 10.


There is a 5-8 page final paper. You can choose from the following topics:

1.     Compare and contrast two types of predictions (e.g., predicting earthquakes vs. the stock market, outcomes of sport events vs. illnesses). What makes them different?  Which one is more likely to succeed and why?

2.     What is self-fulfilling and self-frustrating prophecy? How do they work? What would be good examples of each? Why do they end up with opposite results?

3.     Sometimes wrong or unfounded beliefs about the future can be beneficial. How so?

4.     Watch the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick (1968). The movie makes a series of predictions as the story unfolds. What predictions proved to be correct and incorrect?

5.     Or you can propose a paper topic related to prediction.

Your grade will be determined 60% by your final paper and 40% by your class participation.


Final paper due: February 18, 4 pm.




January 14

The Curse and Use of Randomness: Superstition and Control


Whitson, Jennifer A. and Adam D. Galinsky. “Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception.” Science 322, 115 (2008) (online version at )

Damisch, Lysann, Barbara Stoberock and Thomas Mussweiler. 2010. ”Keep Your Fingers Crossed!: How Superstition Improves Performance.”  Psychological Science, 21(7) 1014  –1020 (online version at )

And here is a nice blog by Ed Yong explaining these issues to a wider audience:


January 21

Same as It Ever Was: Predicting Nature


Cartlidge, Edwin. 2011. “Quake Experts to Be Tried for Manslaughter.” Science 332 (6034) :1135–1136

Vandewege, Renny. Can We Really Trust 7-Day Weather Forecasts?


January 28

Predicting the Social World


David, Paul A. "Clio and the Economics of QWERTY." The American economic review 75.2 (1985): 332-337.  JSTOR   

Congressional Budget Office. 2013. CBO's Economic Forecasting Record: 2013 Update. January 17.

Homa, Ken. Nums: Why’s the Fed so bad at forecasting?

Scherker, Amanda. 2014. “11 Visions of the Future That Were Utterly Wrong.” Huffington Post, January 3

Davis, Lauren. How Our Predictions for the  Year 2000 Changed Throughout the 20th Century.”


February 4

Predicting What You Do


Robert Merton. 1948. “The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.” Antioch Review, 8/2

Dawes, Robyn M., David Faust, and Paul E. Meehl. 1989, "Clinical versus actuarial judgment." Science 243.4899 : 1668-1674.


February 11

Sociology of the Future

Kerr, Ian and Jessica Earle. 2013. Prediction, Preemption and Presumption. How Big Data Threatens Big Picture Privacy. Stanford Law Review, September 3

Wakefield, Jane. 2011. When Algorithms Control the World.” BBC News, August 22,