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Anticipating High Impact/Low Probability Events

Recognizing how issues may be evolving in ways that might require action today is not an easy task. Our understanding of current trends is often firmly anchored in the past. We usually:

  • Do not consider what we cannot imagine.
  • Believe the answer is to be found, not created or imagined.
  • Are not programmed to think systematically about what the future will bring.

As a result, we easily fall victim to Intuitive Traps such as Expecting Marginal Change, Lacking Sufficient Bins, and Ignoring Inconsistent Evidence. Intuitive Traps are mistakes practitioners make every day as they do their analysis.

Knowing that you are susceptible to these traps provides little protection against falling into them. The solution is to employ Structured Analytic Techniques that inject rigor into the analysis. In this case, a good technique to use is High Impact/Low Probability Analysis. This article explores how we can use this technique to anticipate the potential for dramatic but unlikely changes in American politics, the Ukraine war, climate change, the influence of the far-right media, and the urban landscape.

High Impact/Low Probability Analysis should be used when one wants to posit a seemingly long-shot development—potentially a “game changer”—that may be more likely to occur than previously thought. This change in perception is usually triggered by an event or report that is inconsistent with one’s working model. Events that would have merited such treatment include the 2008 global economic crisis, the rapid rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), and the 6 January 2021 insurrectionist attack on the US Capitol. This technique allows analysts to explore the consequences of an event not deemed likely by conventional wisdom without having to argue with others about how likely it is to happen. The technique can also be used to anticipate measures that can be taken to avoid the danger or to exploit the opportunities presented by the scenario.

Looking ahead at the next few years, five high impact but unlikely scenarios merit serious attention:

  • The emergence of a three-party system in the United States.
  • The end of the Ukraine war within a year following Putin’s fall from power.
  • A dramatic increase in sea levels or the rerouting of the Gulf Stream, requiring major shifts in resources.
  • The bankruptcy of the far-right media machine (Fox, One America News (OAN), Infowars).
  • The hollowing out of major cities post-COVID.

Using High Impact/Low Probability Analysis, we can imagine how these events will play out, and identify potential dangers and/or benefits that may require additional consideration.

Three Party System. In this scenario, Trump is indicted by federal and state prosecutors but stays in the presidential race. His standing in the polls falls as his campaign evolves into a personal “retribution” campaign to abolish the Department of Justice and the FBI. Prior to the Iowa primary, he announces that he will run as a third-party candidate to avoid becoming subject to the “sore losers” rule in some 20 states which prohibits a candidate from running for office if they lost a primary election. Trump’s new “Make America Great” party captures 40 percent of the Republican vote and 20 percent of the popular vote. The “Revived Republican” party captures around 20 percent of the popular vote, and the Democratic Party celebrates a Blue Wave election winning 60 percent of the vote. Over the next decade, the “Revived Republicans” gain adherents, but the Democrats remain comfortably in power.

Ukraine War. Most knowledgeable observers predict the war in eastern Ukraine will extend for a year or more, particularly if one assumes that Ukraine will continue to insist on a total Russian withdrawal from its territory— including Crimea. As the war continues, in this scenario, Russian President Vladimir Putin comes under growing pressure from many sides. On the far right, the leader of the Wagner group supported by several senior generals and right-wing Russian commentators issues ultimatums to Putin to take more aggressive action to win the war. Meanwhile, battle casualties mount to intolerable levels, junior military officers become increasingly disenchanted, and rural and more conservative Russians begin to protest the impact of economic sanctions and the persistent arrival of war dead. When Putin perceives that his intelligence services and some senior military officers are plotting a coup, he opts to flee, secreting himself away to safe harbor in Venezuela. Support for the war quickly evaporates, and Russia withdraws from Ukraine.

Climate Change. Climate change accelerates exponentially in the next few years as various “feedback loops” increase ice melting in Greenland and the Arctic well beyond projections, spur a massive release of methane in the Arctic permafrost, and cause the collapse of the Doomsday glacier in eastern Antarctica. Sea levels are now projected in a recent article in Nature magazine to rise by one to three feet by 2100 (or as much as half an inch per year on average), putting major coastal cities and even whole countries at risk. This could spur significant emergency resources to be committed to planning for this doomsday scenario. Meanwhile, the influx of the melting of Greenland’s ice and the Arctic into the Atlantic Ocean causes the Gulf Stream to divert to the south, decreasing average temperatures in Europe by ten degrees with major negative consequences for agriculture, viticulture, and the economy.

Far Right Media Collapse. Dominion’s $1.6 billion lawsuits against Fox News and OAN and Smartmatic’s $2.7 billion lawsuit against Fox News are successful. The publicity surrounding the trials destroys the Fox brand as key senior commentators are exposed for knowingly making false statements in the pursuit of better ratings. A similar dynamic plays out for Alex Jones and Infowars as lawyers identify his sources of revenue and divert them to the parents of the children murdered at Sandy Hook, who won a $965 million lawsuit against Jones. By 2026, Fox, OAN, and Infowars go into bankruptcy. The dominant position of the far right in the broadcast media is substantially curtailed, although it still can command the loyalty of around 20 percent of the population. This dynamic works to the advantage of more moderate Republicans who want to focus attention on promoting conservative issues and not seeking retribution for stoking fear and anger. It also makes it easier for Democrats—and the population at large—to pass bipartisan legislation.

Hollowing Out of Cities. In the post-COVID world, mayors across the United States come to realize that a substantial portion of workers who live outside the city and began to work at home because of COVID simply will not return. The economic impact of this phenomenon is substantial, especially once elected officials realize that it is a structural problem, not a temporary aberration. Mayors recognize that they need to develop strategic plans to reimagine the role of cities and generate a flow of revenue into their coffers. For starters, much of the chronically empty office space is converted into residential housing. Mayors and governors take the lead in establishing collaborative forums to develop visions of how to rethink the role of cities.

You can learn more about Intuitive Traps and High Impact/Low Probability Analysis in the Handbook of Analytic Tools and Techniques, 5th ed. (2019)