As summer was coming to a close, Elaine Rich and her team were poring over data on the pandemic, trying to determine how much the decision to close schools would help contain it. They were consulting epidemiologists and their own internal modeling, but the complexity of the question was still staggering. Just how important were schools to the virus’s spread?
The virus Rich and her team were studying was not Covid-19—in fact, it wasn’t real at all. It was a simulation conducted last year as part of a research project called FOCUS (Forecasting Counterfactuals in Uncontrolled Settings), sponsored by IARPA, the research branch of the US intelligence community. When the researchers chose an epidemiological simulation as one of the settings for their study, they didn’t know that the entire world would soon grapple with the very questions they were asking participants to answer.
FOCUS is the latest in a series of studies into how humans make forecasts—an essential part of making good decisions. Decision making is about formulating alternative plans of action, considering their consequences, and choosing between them. That middle step is all about forecasting. “Almost every decision we make depends on a prediction,” says Jenn Logg, an assistant professor of management at Georgetown University.