I just finished Isaac Asimov's novel Foundation, the first book in the Foundation series. Its premise relies in part on one character, Hari Seldon, planning the future of a scholarly world by using psychohistory to help figure out on what timescales civilizations will rise and fall, and when crises happen. He then leaves messages for the times when these crises will occur.

Is it at all plausible to use psychohistory - the prediction of large-scale future events in a civilization - to guide a civilization through the future by leaving it time-capsule-like messages when major crises will emerge? I'm interested in a galactic civilization, meaning that small fluctuations aren't as important.

The crises that I'm thinking of would affect a substantial portion of the galaxy - like a severe economic depression starting on several star systems that threatened to ruin the galactic economy, or warfare between two small interstellar alliances that could bring the entire galaxy to bloodshed and fighting.

Note: If your response is that psychohistory could never work, that's fine. Just justify your answer.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ For the purposes of this question, what do you consider to be a "major crisis"? The discovery of steel or attaining spaceflight seem like milestones, but I wouldn't call them crises. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Feb 17, 2016 at 21:50
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ I may have trouble answering this. The issues that arise and the solutions to them are the subject of the rest of the Foundation series. I'm fearful that I may not be able to answer without spoilers. Some of the approaches he used in the rest of the series are obvious in hindsight, but much harder to see as you read in the forward direction. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Feb 17, 2016 at 21:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre Good question. I would say the rise and fall of an interstellar sub-civilization - so like if a couple of star systems suddenly had a major economic depression. The crises I'm thinking of would affect most of the galaxy. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Feb 17, 2016 at 21:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's important to remember that in Foundation, Seldon arranged for Terminus to be isolated and possess limited resources specifically to limit their options and thus make their future easier to model. $\endgroup$
    – Ray
    Feb 18, 2016 at 3:34
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @HDE22686 It's been awhile since I read it, but I believe that was one of the Crises he did predict: Terminus didn't have the resources to win a war against one of the kingdoms, but if conquered, the Foundation resources (in conjunction with its own) would give the conquering kingdom a massive advantage over the other kingdoms, and thus they would be compelled to act to protect the Foundation. (I'm basing that on equal parts memory and quick Wikipedia binge, so I might have some details wrong.) The Mule would be a better example of an external variable that nearly screwed things up. $\endgroup$
    – Ray
    Feb 18, 2016 at 3:49

9 Answers 9


If I remember correctly, Hari's predictions moved farther and farther from actual as time progressed. Part of this was because the original course set was actually a blind. Then he was trying to 'guide' history along. Heisenberg anyone?

However, given a large enough data set people ARE predictable. Kind of like ant colonies, they are much simpler to observe and predict. You can't predict any single ant, but have a pretty good idea what the colony as a whole will do. But even there we observe some incredible behaviors based on a small set of reactions.

So finding the key elements to group reactions is paramount in having a chance at good predictions. Adding to that, I expect different societies and cultures to have different reactions to the same stimuli.

So while you might be able to predict how a culture would react, it is not the same as an individual in that culture. Just like any other statistics.

Stats are useful as long as you understand what you are measuring and the variables that change it. That is all pyschohistory really is. Super-advanced stats, on a race.

I think we would need to be able to have an algorithm that can predict the stock market 3 days out using world events as a precursor before we have much luck with predicting humanity with an algorithm.

And ultimately successfully predicting the future, will cause people to either try and change it or capitalize on it, changing it. So you can predict it and watch it come about, or try and change it and have no idea what will actually happen.

  • $\begingroup$ I think the stock market is a poor example for your point, because 1. we are already very good at predicting market moves based on world events, they're called professional traders, and 2. by its very nature, market prices include predictions of future events, which makes precognition (and insider information) the only sure ways of beating the market, whereas psychohistory requires that someone knowing the future is unable to significantly change it. $\endgroup$ Feb 18, 2016 at 4:21
  • $\begingroup$ @congus It's a HYPOTHESIS - a wrong one at that - which has VERY little to do with NATURE of markets - especially now, when markets grew complex and opaque. You are contradicting yourself by first stating that prices contain all the necessary info (they don't) and then saying that they do NOT contain "insider information". Separately, anyone who can compute $d=vt$ possesses "precognition" in your parlance // Statistics is NOT good for predicting new phenomena specifically because it deals with past data only. $\endgroup$
    – A.S.
    Feb 18, 2016 at 11:30
  • $\begingroup$ @congusbongus doubt that very much - or the market makers would have predicted January's crash;or at least the market wouldn't be swinging wildly up and down since then. Nor would the crash of 2008 have appeared, the market would have slowly downgraded banks instead of an instant collapse. Financial markets are supposed to be efficient, but they rarely are - the companies in them are too opaque for the market to work. $\endgroup$
    – gbjbaanb
    Feb 18, 2016 at 16:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ But time scales matter. Predicting three day stock forecasts is always going to be hard because new information (company reports, government statistical updates, breaking news, prices in commodity markets) is always provoking reassessment. But over a 30 year period, the "noise" largely averages out and we see clear trends (eg GDP and stock markets trend upwards, with exponential growth). $\endgroup$
    – Silverfish
    Feb 18, 2016 at 17:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Psychohistory as Asimov posited it might have been able to predict long term trends like the growth of American power from the 1800s to today, or the decline of the Soviet Union. But it couldn't predict tomorrow's wheat price, or that LBJ would succeed JFK on the date he did. $\endgroup$
    – Silverfish
    Feb 18, 2016 at 17:23

Fernand Braudel talks about the Longue Duree (the long view), i.e. thinking about history structurally, usually through an economic lens. Certain developments tend to occur in order. You get stone axes before you get agriculture. You get metallurgy before you get cannon, etc. Opening one area of progress creates new challenges and the theory is that once you adopt a high-level view, the "froth" of event history gives way to the smooth flow of inexorable trends.

In many ways, the Marxist view of the world is similar, with historical trends leading to changes in the means of economic and industrial organization, that supposedly have predictable and unavoidable consequences.

Others would argue that ^this is all bunk. Chaos theory (developed later by more mathematically gifted people) suggests that large deviations in outcomes can result from seemingly minor differences in initial conditions.

So, who is right? It would be mulish of me (wink!) to try to adjudicate this debate in here, but it is undeniable that there seem to be large scale trends in human history that seem impervious to actual events. World War 2 was doubtlessly a big deal, and our history would be much different without such a cataclysm, but I challenge you to find it as more than a minor blip on the charts below.

enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ Good points. It does seem to me, though, that in many cases, WWII led to a drastic increase in GDP, for instance, rather than the slower increase it had previously had. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Feb 17, 2016 at 22:30
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868, the rate is pretty similar for some of the charts, it's just the foot of the exponential. $\endgroup$ Feb 17, 2016 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ I know; I had been implying that it had played a non-trivial role. But I could be misreading it. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Feb 17, 2016 at 22:36
  • $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa I think you're implying causality incorrectly here - look at population graph- that's not exponential, same with GDP. What has happened is that WW2 triggered a boom in one that caused the others to increase, which then looks exponential (eg urban pop due to better food production techniques, requiring fewer workers so more move to urban centres looking for work). WW1 and 2 were step changes for the western world, taking us from the very end of feudal times to modern ones. $\endgroup$
    – gbjbaanb
    Feb 18, 2016 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ @gbjbaanb Global GDP has a growth rate of 2-3% per year. You mean to say that is not exponential growth? $\endgroup$ Feb 18, 2016 at 16:40

I think that looking at history many things make sense in "hindsight" which were very difficult to predict at that time, let alone hundreds of years in the past.

Thus, my answer is a firm No. I'll elaborate:

One major aspect in the way the world ticks along is technology. It's not reasonable to know exactly what tech will be developed, and how it might influence society, politics, or the world.

The perfect example is nuclear power. When the nuclear bomb was first employed many people either:

  • Predicted the end of the world

  • Predicted that we will all be driving nuclear powered cars in just a few short years (Fallout universe style)

  • Thought that energy shortages would become a thing of the past

    (the list goes on and on)

None of those things really came true. It impacted our lives, sure, there were major implications, but nuclear technology is not quite as widespread as people back then would have thought.

But if a brilliant scientist had miniaturized nuclear reactors, and made them super-safe to use then our history would be quite different.

Next we have the internet, and social media.

On one hand some experts argue that we have sacrificed our privacy and given major corporations / power hungry politicians the tools to control our lives.

Others believe otherwise: that we now have the tools to communicate and spread information such that "the evil government" will never be able to control us completely again. That the "cat's out of the bag" as it were.

Both points of view are valid, but which will ultimately prove to be the end result? Complete domination by power hungry corporations, or a society in which we can communicate freely and openly, and in which governments and corporations fear the voice of the people?

(The outcomes above are a little extreme, but you get my point)

  • $\begingroup$ And if the there was a message that said "Don't build a bomb with the nuclear stuff you just discovered"? The message-leaver could do something like that, thus guiding the civilization. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Feb 17, 2016 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre - but how would that person know when a certain technology would be invented, or if it would be invented? How many people could dream of how powerful a nuclear weapon could be before it was first deployed? How many people might have foreseen the cold war, or the fact that nukes would never be used after Hiroshima and Nagasaki? This person would need to be an expert in an impossible number of disciplines, and also to know, better than 99% of the experts in the world, not only what's achievable, but when. That's magic at that point. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Feb 17, 2016 at 21:56
  • $\begingroup$ Wonderful thing is, the message doesn't have to coincide with the event. If the event happens first, then the message makes sense. If the event never happens, then either the message doesn't appear or it doesn't make sense and is discarded. Like you, I originally thought the answer was no, but a little thought and I'm not so sure... $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Feb 17, 2016 at 22:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Disagree with this. Technological growth is very much an incremental thing - just look at how many discoveries and inventions were made by several people, completely independently, at the same time. See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_multiple_discoveries $\endgroup$
    – Benubird
    Feb 18, 2016 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Benubird - You missed my point. Some inventions can be "discovered" by multiple people at more or less the same time, but it's the effect that that particular invention has on society which matters. For example many different inventors claimed to be "the first to fly". Then in WWI the first biplanes were used in warfare. These days we have aircraft carriers, and air-superiority is critical in any modern war. Could someone in the late 1800's have looked at the first few silly "planes" which were being experimented with and predicted that? Doubtful. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Feb 18, 2016 at 15:00

Tl/Dr; Yes, I think it is possible. However, it is not easy. In fact, its hard to even pin down the exact requirements on the question. The real key is that you have to model the universe with yourself in it, which encourages solutions that are self-similar, fractaline in nature.

Given that questions like these are the subject of the rest of the Foundation series, I'm going to consciously deviate and consider another character which predicted the future: the Paradash Emperor Duke of House Atreides, Paul Atreides, aka Muad'Dib. For those unfamiliar with the name, he is a character in Frank Herbert's Dune. The theories one may apply to Paul certainly apply to Hari Seldon. By switching to a different universe, I can talk about common issues they may face using details and word choices which hopefully will not lead to spoilers.

This answer is long. Perhaps too long, but I find it actually ties into real life applications well enough to put it on paper. We humans do too many things that look like miniature versions of psychohistory to leave the concept to fiction. The first part discusses what to do with the chaotic systems that wreck typical predictive algorithms. The second part explores why working with other humans could be a very wise path. The final part gets to the real crux of the issue, of why psychohistory could work, or why it couldn't.

The first step to a question like this is going to be defining some basic assumptions. The first thing needed to really make any headway on fantastical theories like Psychohistory is compatabalism. Modeling the freewill of a human being is tough. In fact, its a major sore point in Western philosophy. Compatabalism claims that the freewill we have is compatable with a physical world: we do not observe anything which requires a metaphysical world above. In Dune, Frank Herbert never relies on anything supernatural which could not be explained using physics. The great mythos of Shai Hulud is explained as the result of centuries of gently prodding by the Bene Gesserit and efforts in planetary ecology. The place the Bene Gesserit cannot go is highly spiritual in its description, but the explanation for what it is and why they cannot go there is defined within the bounds of physics.

As a result, it is possible to simplify the problem at hand by transforming the world we live in to a world which is identical in every way, except every living being with freewill is replaced with a p-zombie, a philosophical construct which has no freewill but acts exactly the same as though it had it. If one can find a solution to the problem in this world, it is trivial to show that it must work in this world, but this is only true if one starts from the assumption of compatabalism. Without that assumption, the possibility of things like miracles really limit the ability to predict the future.

The second assumption I want to make is a limitation of scope. Saying "is is plausible that psychohistory works" is reasonable, but to come to a consensus on whether or not it is actually plausible, I think it's helpful to pin it to more strict wordings. There are two requirements that I believe make sense here. The first is that the the theory must yield admissible results. "Admissible" is a statistical decision theory term which basically states that there is no rule which is always better than it. This is a low but essential bar. Playing the lottery is an admissible decision because there is a possibility that you will end up richer than any other decision you could have made. It is a good rule because it handles the case where you simply don't have the cards in your hand to save the universe. You don't have to "win" the game, you just have to play a hand which isn't provably worse in all cases than a different play.

The final requirement I add is a minimum threshold for utility. You want to accomplish more than just doing nothing. In our real life, this can be hard. There's a lot of amazing stuff out there that doesn't require our hand at all. However, in both Paul's world and Hari's world, that isn't the case:

  • In Paul's world, the genetic essence that makes us "human" is becoming too dilute to sustain itself. Failure to do anything could result in the end of all humanity.
  • In Hari's world, the dark ages are coming, 10^30 years of darkness are at risk. Needless to say, the future is dark indeed.

In both cases, we see that there's a lot of room for improvement. The darker the world is without intervention, the easier it is to argue the value of such intervention. It will also help because you are going to have to make some very tough calls along the way. If the world could turn out just fine on its own, it may be very hard to justify acting in a way which can harm the structure you're trying to create.

Now the key to this puzzle is trying to figure out what sort of thing we're trying to construct. We know it needs to be able to do predictive modeling on a large scale, using small scale resources. From an information theoretic standpoint, this likely means the need to aggregate large amounts of state information from the world around us into small scale information. We want to be able to play with numbers like "GDP of the United States," not "a list of the GPS position of every dollar bill, by serial number."

Obviously, if we had such an aggregation system in place, it would be easy. However, that's handwaving a mighty thing. Consider what anyone would give for a tool that could predict the things that matter in their life. We can't just handwave away the construction of this system, it has to at least be plausible to create.

The system also has to deal with chaos. It is currently believed that the world contains chaotic systems, such as weather. They are unpredictable, by definition. The obvious solution is to try to ensure no chaotic system's behavior matters in the great scheme of things, but we run into a self-referential problem. We have to treat ourselves as a p-zombie, if we want to be consistent, and thus our unpredictability and chaotic behavior would need to be squelched like all others. A smooth laminar universe awaits!

'Tis a horrible idea no? Okay, lets work on a far harder answer: embracing the chaos. How can we accept chaotic systems into our tool and let them help us? The secret lies in these metronomes.

We can entangle ourselves with these chaotic systems to predict and affect their state. This is similar to entangling photons so that their states are the same at great distances, except it will be done macroscopically, and has to be done without the help of Quantum Magic. The goal is to create a chaotic system within your tool whose state is coupled to the chaotic system outside of you by continuous interaction. Over time, you can build up a feedback loop such that the behavior of the two systems is linked. If one of them is perturbed, it rapidly transfers the information to the other, keeping the two in sync. Its hard to do, but fundamentally very similar to what one has to do to balance a broomstick on one's hand.

So now we have a few useful tools:

  • We can synchronize with chaotic systems, allowing us to predict information about their state.
  • That synchronization also allows us to know the lowest energy way to affect the state of the chaotic system outsides.

The second half is key. Efficiency of energy utilization is going to be a big deal. The Chinese martial art Tai Chi has a saying, "Use four ounces to move four tons." We're going to use perhaps 4kg to move 10^52kg! Sheesh! We're going to have to be super efficient!

Of course, there's still the question of the systems which are not chaotic. They are well described by classical mechanics, so we can actually measure their state directly rather than having to entangle with them. However, there's a question of storage space. There would be far more data than you could possibly store in your head, and its clear any one bit of it could be useful. We're going to need more storage. Fortunately, we have somewhere to store it -- all of the chaotic systems we entangled have plenty of state data which we aren't 100% correlated to. Unfortunately, chaotic systems are a terrible place to store information. We're going to have to work on that next. We're going to have to enlist chaotic systems to store and process data for us. That's right, enlist chaos. If you try to skirt around the issue of chaos by damping it out, psychohistory is impossible.

You will likely find some chaotic systems more helpful than others. For example, your fellow compatriots, or at least their p-zombie representations, can help. They are very chaotic systems that have arguably been bred for observation and data processing. We've got a kilogram of squishy wrinkly material in our head dedicated to the task! This shows up in Dune with Paul's choice of companions. The Duke, and later Emperor, is always surrounded by people who are observing the world, processing information, providing it to him, and acting on his orders (which includes guarding his life).

It was intuitive to see that your best friend is going to be of more help for psychohistory than a gust of wind, but why? If we understand that answer, we may be able to better choose which people/p-zombies to bring close to us. I think part of the intuitive answer is trust. You need to be able to trust these people to act as an extension of yourself. You need to be able to trust that they are holding onto the key information about some system, and are monitoring it for any changes that you might need. You need to be able to trust them to act on their own. What sort of system might we be able to trust in this way?

One of the key facets of trust is that it is built through repetition. You prove your trustworthyness by being predictable and reliable. Of course, the ground beneath your feet is predictable and reliable, which demonstrates that the trust we need also needs to be flexible, or else you're treating your best friend like the dirt beneath your feet.

The simplest structure which is trustworthy is one which polices itself. If you can trust someone's "inner self" to police their "outer self" and keep it in check, maybe even report to you when the outer self is misbehaving, then you can trust the person as a whole. Of course, this is a chicken and egg problem. You have to be able to trust the "inner self", which could involve trusting an "inner inner self" and so forth. In an ideal world, such as one where psychohistory might come about, this process could continue as deep as one needs. In our world, we know eventually there's going to be something unpredictable at the core of this structure. We'll address this in a moment, but there's an important and convenient detail here. We mentioned earlier that our plan needs to include the effects of our own actions. This means a sub-plan of the plan needs to account for whatever we choose to do. Thus means a sub-sub-plan of the sub-plan needs to account for how we plan for our choices, and so forth. We need the same structure in ourselves as we need in those around us! This is very important, because it permits us to be part of someone else's psychohistory while we strive to be part of our own!

We see this in Dune. Paul's closest compatriots, such as Gurney Hallack, Stitgar, and Paul's own mother and father, are all striving to shape the world to their goals, and all have this deep self-within-a-self structure. Each of them encourage Paul to develop his own structure deeper, both helping them with their goals and helping Paul achieve more control over his own future. This can be contrasted with the Baron Harkonen. Under the Baron, depth is only encouraged as long as the Baron maintains control. He takes care to make sure none of his servants gain more control over his life than he has over theirs.

Now with all of this, we can start to put the pieces together. We can see how we can entangle ourselves with chaotic structures, including our p-zombie friends. We can see how to use these friends to keep track of the huge volume of valuable information we need for our psychohistory. And we can see how we can work together, even if there isn't a strict hierarchy of who is in charge. The lack of a strict hierarchy brings up an interesting question: whose psychohistory is it anyway? Did Hari Seldon really create it out of the blue, with no external muse guiding his way? In Dune, Paul Atraedes clearly admits he's following some greater scheme that he does not fully comprehend up until the moment where he does, and crowns himself Emperor of the Galaxy in the aftermath.

So we clearly have to consider two patterns. One is that there were already forces at play trying to solve the dark ages problem of Foundation, or forces at play leading towards the unraveling of the dangerous web the Bene Gesserit wove. In such a case, psychohistory or one's status as the Kwisatz Haderach is really just the culmination of a much larger effort. It may seem magical, because nobody can see the undercurrents. This would suggest that it is no accident that Hari took the secrets to his grave.

The other pattern is that your Hari or Paul is actually the first ripple forming in an avalanche that follows. In this case, Hari or Paul may have undergone tremendous inner searching, and found everything revolved around one small nugget... the part of themselves they could not see into. They brought it to the surface, and it happened to be more effective than any other approach anyone else had. If someone else had an effective approach, Hari may have believed psychohistory works, when it in fact does not. In Dune, a similar thing happens when Paul's son actually disrupts Paul's vision of the future by doing something Paul never thought someone would do.

In this case of a small influential nugget, it might expand with the flow of time like a smoke ring, until it is entangled with everything of importance. Then, it may turn inward and find a Hari or a Paul to be its harbinger. However, what kind of idea can behave this way? The more divisive the idea, the more rapidly it devolves into Baron Harkonen's style of thinking. The more unifying the idea, the more it can be upheld by those like Paul's gang of highly conscious individuals. In fact, the most unifying ideas would be those which so strongly resemble the status quo that nobody realizes anything changed at all!

The most powerful ideas may be no more than just a whisper.

  • $\begingroup$ I am sorry for the length. I may have had fun in the past trying to explore how such things as psychohistory could be explained with a hard-science tag =) Hard science means more pencil pushing to cover all your bases! $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Feb 18, 2016 at 0:38
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "In Dune, Frank Herbert never relies on anything supernatural which could not be explained using physics." I read a book called "Dune" a while back. I seem to recall people controlling minds merely through speaking, and navigating through hyperspace (!) with psychic powers (!!). That's laying aside how the specifics of predicting the future work, or any of the future books. $\endgroup$
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 18, 2016 at 2:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Jonah I suppose the mere act of being able to do hyperspatial travel should be considered supernatural, I may have to edit that (he needed it to create the proper distances for his story). However, Herbert often takes the time to point out cases where what you might think are supernatural turn out to be completely reasonable for a physical world whose actors, such as the Bene Gesserit with their 10,000 year outlook with their genetic memory. If anything, the most supernatural thing in his books is the immaculate patience some of the major social groups exert. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Feb 18, 2016 at 3:06
  • $\begingroup$ As an example, take the Voice, which you mention. If you could carefully guide cultures such that most people accidentally teach their children a backdoor because the backdoor is too subtle to see, all you have to do is hold the keys. In the series, those with the Voice are very careful where they use it, because they know if people hear it too much, it will cease to work. They also show characters whose training permits them immunity from the Voice, showing that once you know it exists, you can combat it, much like how you can combat subliminal messaging in advertisements. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Feb 18, 2016 at 3:09
  • $\begingroup$ "If you could carefully guide cultures such that most people accidentally teach their children a backdoor because the backdoor is too subtle to see, all you have to do is hold the keys." Well, the best way of combating subliminal messaging is recognizing that it doesn't really work. The popcorn-coke study was one of the few that showed any effect, and it was an outright fraud: snopes.com/business/hidden/popcorn.asp. There's not particularly any evidence that a culture can teach a susceptibility to mind control, accidentally or otherwise. $\endgroup$
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 18, 2016 at 3:23

If we go by Asimov's explanations, the answer is clearly no, since Psycohistory is a statistical tool used to model the actions of masses of people (the Galactic population, in fact) and leadership is defined as actions taken to get people to carry out the leader's intent.

Think about this in terms of insurance, a real life product of statistics. using masses of data, actuarial tables are drawn up demonstrating the likelihood of death within certain age groups. Qualifiers can be added to take into account productive and counterproductive behaviours (for example smokers in any age group will have a much higher chance of death than non smokers). So the amount you pay in a premium is determined by statistics on the historical death rate per thousand of people in your age group (adjusted for factors like smoking).

However, this information has nothing at all to say about when you will actually die. Making a change like quitting smoking can shift your position inside the table (death of ex smokers per thousand/age group), but other than making a general shift in your position, the actuarial tables still don't predict when you will die.

Quitting smoking is perhaps a weak analogy, but since psychohistory is predicted on modelling the behaviours of a giant mass of people, then the actions of individual leaders will be much like convincing people to quit smoking, there may be subtle shifts in the actuarial tables over time, but few dramatic changes.

Statistical tables and prediction are based on most variables being stable over time. Later in the Foundation series,

psychohistory broke down when a wild card was introduced in the form of a mutant with psychic powers.

Later in the plot it is revealed that

galactic history is not merely predicted, but actively managed by a protagonist.

Similarly the actuarial tables use to calculate insurance premiums could be overturned by some sort of large scale natural disaster, or even the after effects of something like a limited nuclear exchange in the Middle East (every group is ow affected by radioactive fallout, so all tables after the event need to be recalibrated, but this is no longer accurately predictive since the effects of fallout or natural disaster could be changeable each year. A year with high dust storm activity spreads more fallout and creates another spike in deaths years downrange of the windstorms).

This sort of reasoning means that the sort of "leadership" needed to change the predicted outcomes of psychohistory is going to be of the operatic "Grand Guignol" type capable of changing the statistical outcomes of millions or billions of actions in a very short period of time. Asimov himself understood how unlikely this was, hence the introduction of a unique and totally off the charts individual in the stories.

  • $\begingroup$ I agree; Asimov makes a point of presenting the rules of Psychohistory, then proceeds to subvert them. This is very similar to how he presents the "Three Laws of Robotics", then illustrates their flaws and loopholes throughout 'I, Robot'. $\endgroup$
    – Liesmith
    Feb 18, 2016 at 7:32
  • $\begingroup$ In insurance the statistics used also have an expiry date of sort, data need to be recent to be reliable and tables are continuously updated. Anyone that works in insurance knows that the further you go in time the less precise your projections are because more and more variables are added. Its also considered easier to predict the behaviour of a crowd rather than a single person, its used in marketing, architecture, engineering etc. $\endgroup$ Feb 18, 2016 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ Its unfortunate for HDE226868 just how important those spoilers are to explaining how Asimov thinks it would actually work, and how massive the spoilers are. HDE! Read the other books so that you can safely mouse over the spoilers! Do it! =) $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Feb 18, 2016 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ Galactic civilization had to be managed - you missed important part of the plot. Psyhohistory calculated that if left to decay (which was inevitable), interregnum (and suffering) between old and next galactic empire would last 30K years. With the guidance of the Second Foundation, it was expected to last only 1K year, that was the whole point of establishing Foundation. $\endgroup$ Feb 18, 2016 at 15:54
  • $\begingroup$ At the risk of another spoiler, active management by the First Foundation seemed to be flailing about (Psyhohistory unfolds as it should regardless of what they do). Discussions about "active management" happen....later.... $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Feb 19, 2016 at 0:45

It seems to me that Asimov's premise would have been more plausible if, rather than fixed messages opened at fixed times, his psychohistorian had left behind a computer program. The program would read the galactic news feeds, gleaning information from current events. When certain conditions were met, the program would release messages tailored to solicit the desired change in behavior among the leaders. As the story stands, it suggests a "Rube Goldberg" level of machination. We now know from chaos and game theory that accurate long term forecasting in highly complex systems is inherently impossible.


No, never. Small random events can have huge unpredictable consequences, as predicted by chaos theory.

Example from recent history of USA:

In 2000, Butterfly ballot flipped USA election results from Al Gore to W Bush. As consequence:

  • USA spend 3 Trillions USD on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, destabilized the region, which sent refugees to Syria and destabilized it, which sent 1M refugees to Europe. As a result, there are 20M of people in Middle East who have a cousin in Europe, who is (according to tribal laws from original country) required to help that cousin, feed him and help him to find a job, if only s/he can get to Europe somehow. So for 20M people in Middle East, getting smuggled to Europe is best shot on decent life they have. 1 M per year for foreseeable future. Open liberal democracies like in Europe have no decent way to protect themselves from such influx without radically change how they think about their own society (to be less open). So old open Europe is over, one way or another.
  • W Bush election in 2000 also significantly changed US domestic politics. Parties became more polarized. It allowed W Bush to shift Supreme Court balance to the right, and after Citizens United unlimited private money to influence (buy) election results. Koch brothers spent millions to battle scientific consensus about climate change, and as result less people trust the scientific consensus than in 2000. Which slowed down the necessary and inevitable transition to low carbon economy, which will likely change Earth's climate for millenia.

Situation is so polarized right now that I expect to have as many (or more) downvotes as upvotetes for this answer, because personal position to climate change today is not based on scientific consensus, but on personal political preferences.

All this as a result on obvious design error on a voting ballot in one county in Florida in 2000. Not predictable by any statistics.

Asimov has another novel well wort reading dealing with similar problem from other perspective: The End of Eternity where scientist do careful "minimal reality changes" to change the flow of the history and minimize the suffering of humanity. And again, such changes have unpredictable consequences. So even Asimov was not 100% sold on the feasibility of psychohistory.

Funny fact: Economic Nobel laureate Krugman was so hooked up on Foundation that he decided to study macroeconomics - this was the closes he could get to psychohistory.


For psychohistory to be a possible theory, and for it to be used in time capsules, there are several criteria that humanity as a dynamical system must meet.

First of all, this system must be non-chaotic. The reason is simple, if it is chaotic, it is fundamentally unpredictable, because infinitely close initial conditions will lead to diverging results, if enough time pass. Since we can now the universe only with finite precision, that will lead to any prediction to fail at some point.

That is not a definitive problem with psychohistory itself, since on short time scale relative to the system (which can be seconds, days or millennia for what I now) the prediction may be accurate. But to keep them accurate on long time scale, you need to update them, and you can not do it with a time capsule.

Second, the system must be stable. It means that an external (small) perturbation will not leads to diverging results. It is important since most of physics, for example celestial mechanics, has been proved to be either random or chaotic. Since you can not predict these facts, if they can disrupt your system, your predictions will diverge from the reality.

So the picture we can have at this point is that psychohistory predicts a trend in the future, which is disturbed by perturbations that are not sufficient to make the system jump from one trend to another.

Now we have to ask ourselves an important question : are the big crisis mentioned in the question a consequences of the trend, or a perturbation of it ?

As an example, lets examine world war 2. The clear trend is that before the major powers were Europeans, and after they faded and USA and USSR raised as superpower. But does this switch happen because of the war (making it part of the trend), or would it has happened anyway making the war a perturbation of the trend ?

It is clear that if crisis are perturbations of the system, you can not predict them. So the third criterion is that crisis are part of the trend.

That is still not sufficient. Because you not only want to now what will happen, but also when (because you want to use psychohistory in time-capsule). If world war 1 is generally though as having been inevitable due to the social and political context, it is also admitted that the assassinate of Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo speeded up the process.

However for you psychohistoric time-capsule to work, you need the system to be stable in its rate of change, to be able to now when your time capsule should open.


Psychohistoric time capsule, to work, needs the galactic civilization system to have the following features :

  • Being non chaotic
  • Being stable in his behavior
  • Having crisis as trend and not perturbation
  • Being stable in its rate of change

Not that these must be feature of the system and not of the psychohistory, thus being independent of its implementation.

Judging if with all that the use of time-capsule for psychohistory is plausible is let as an exercise to the reader.


I think it is possible, but not always.

Meaning of psychohistory is :

"while one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, the laws of statistics as applied to large groups of people could predict the general flow of future events."

It reminds me the way meterologists predict the weather.

If I remember it right, Hari Seldon needed the historian and full history of galactic empire to create his mathematic methods to perfection.

And this is my theory based on psychohistory:

If we would be able to have full access to history data, and offcourse the true history data, not just something that winner writes, we could use that to search for patterns according to some events and if we find some, we can try to confirm with another part of history where the same event became and if the output is the same, we may very well have a pattern!

And I believe that, if we have enough of these patterns, we may very well have a good way to predict output of every event, the real cause and effect!

Of course, my theory have a few problems like,where to get real data, with enough precision and detail, and how to create search pattern code.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .