As a civil engineer I’m fascinated by predictions of who will win the FIFA World Cup finals in Russia, seeing that we use predictions on a regular basis in engineering. For the finals, there’s a wide variety of forecasts. In addition to armchair fans’ predictions, there are those by the seasoned football experts. Then there are the predictions based on betting tips.
In a completely different class are the quirky animal “predictions” that belong between inverted commas. The most famous was celebrated Paul the Octopus who correctly predicted the outcome of eight matches in the 2010 World Cup finals. This year, the oracle’s job has gone to Achilles, a deaf white cat from St Petersburg’s Hermitage museum in Russia. With 50 other cats, Achilles’s day job is to keep the museum free of rodents.
A vet who oversees Achilles explained why he was picked for the new soothsayer job:
We went for Achilles because he is beautiful, first of all, but also because — like all white cats with blue eyes — he is deaf, so he has a great deal of intuition, he sees with his heart.
But it won’t only be Achilles who’ll be using intuition. When humans predict which team will lift the FIFA World Cup Trophy on 15 July at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, intuition will guide most of them. Will it be Germany or Brazil, perhaps Tunisia or Egypt? Intuitively Brazil or Germany seem better bets than Tunisia or Egypt.
Often our intuitions can be wrong as they are based on heuristics (rules of thumb) or biases (prejudices). Consider Egypt or Tunisia’s upcoming performance. Perhaps Egypt will do better: their superstar striker Mohamed Salah, who plays for Liverpool in the English Premier League, won 34 individual awards this season. They include the Premier League Golden Boot winner after scoring a record 32 goals in 36 league games. With him there, Egypt must therefore be a good team.
Less well known perhaps is that Tunisia are currently ranked 21st and Egypt 46th. Going for Egypt is an example of decisions that are based on what information readily comes to mind.
Professionals in my field of civil engineering make decisions about how structures behave when loaded. For example how an office block’s foundations will behave when loaded by users. This often requires using intuition to interpret data. Intuition is sometimes seen as unscientific but recent research has shown that it is often vital to making decisions.
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and psychologist Gary Klein suggest that intuitive expertise can only develop in environments in which there are stable relationships between identifiable cues and events.
Cues in football could be relative team rankings and events could be wins or losses. Cues in civil engineering could be material strengths and outcomes could be structures that do not fail. Individuals still require time to learn patterns in “high validity” environments, such as civil engineering, but judgements in such environments can often be trusted.
Do football outcomes show stable relationships? To find out, I collected official team rankings before the last five FIFA World Cups, along with game outcomes. Outcomes between similar ranked teams (ranking difference less than 11) are compared to outcomes between disparate teams (ranking difference greater than 11) in the figure below.