Cones of Uncertainty:

I am a storm and weather junkie so I am watching news of Hurricane Irene (from warm and sunny Los Angeles) with fascination. I grew up in New England, and I have once had the experience of getting caught in the midst of the direct hit of a Category 3 hurricane in St. Croix – it was a humbling, noisy, and wet experience.

The psychologist in me is even more fascinated by the concept of the “Cone of Uncertainty”. This so called Cone reflects the range of tracks the hurricane is expected to take based on computer models. It allows preventative evacuations and preparation to take place, and accounts for the potential swath of damage. Makes sense – a hurricane often fakes left and goes right – thus the uncertainty. As time goes on, we have a better handle on the Cone – but it is never precise. The further away they have to predict – the wider and less precise the prediction becomes. Thus the Cone shape.

I liked the term and thought about applying it to people. Because at the end of the day – most people have a “Cone of Uncertainty” – we don’t know exactly how they are going to behave, or move and we sure as hell don’t know how they will behave further down the road. We think we do, but we really don’t (that’s why more people consult psychics than psychologists). We expect people to do one thing and they do something different. However, most people don’t REALLY surprise us – they behave within a certain “Cone” – unless they get a big knock on the head, most people behave in relatively predictable ways.

People don’t change – liars lie, cheaters cheat, scorpions sting – they act within their Cone of Uncertainty – but predictability gets trickier the further in the future we attempt to guess. Fact is, people may be able to be on their best behavior for a certain amount of time – but something in the environment – for a hurricane it is the warm Gulf Stream or the cold Labrador current, for a person it may be stress, or anger or disappointment – can throw things off track.

How do the meteorologists figure out where the Cone will go? They base it on past experience and the current conditions. They toss all the past data into a fancy computer model and it bangs out a course that accounts for those current conditions. It’s like handicapping a horse race – when an odds maker sets odds on a horse – he does it based on what the horse has done in the past, and the conditions of the track. And on race day, he gets even better at the odds making because he knows if the track is wet or the jockey is heavy.

So when you are trying to figure out the Cone of Uncertainty around the people you know – think about what they have done in the past, the current conditions, and the prevailing winds. How do they behave under stress? How do they act when they are happy? What pushes their buttons? Stick all of that data into that fancy computer called your brain, and you will know their Cone. And then you are prepared – to respond to their possible behavior, or at least cope with what might come and perhaps even evacuate.

So batten down the hatches, and always make sure you have extra batteries and water – just in case. Good advice for storms and for life.


This entry was posted on Friday, August 26th, 2011 at 9:45 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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