Predictive Psychology

Concept image showing the workings of the brain, representing predictive operations.
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We our energy machines, consuming and burning energy. Life is energy. Survival requires budgeting of precious energy, stubbornly expending the treasured commodity on behaviors that enhance rather than waste. Unnecessary movement and energy draining ruminations depletes, leaving less life energy to propel us forward, not only to survive but to thrive in our complex and competitive world. We predict, we budget, and we expend energy. In predictive psychology, an abundance of new research is built on the theoretical foundation of the predicting mind and energy budgeting.

Prominent Role of Prediction in Survival

Prediction isn’t just a matter of convenience or slightly improved efficiency. Moderately accurate predictions are a prerequisite of survival. Prediction beats reaction. Life is complex, moving at break next speeds. If we stall, enclosing ourselves exclusively in the moment, we lose a competitive advantage. Our reactions will fail much of the time leaving us naked and vulnerable to harsh consequences of an unforgiving world.

Lisa Feldman Barrett Ph.D., a University Distinguished Professor at Northeastern University with appointments at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, wrote, “a creature that prepared its movement before the predator struck was more likely to be around tomorrow than a creature that awaited a predator’s pounce.” She continues, “creatures that predicted correctly most of the time, or made nonfatal mistakes and learned from them, did well. Those that frequently predicted poorly, missed threats, or false-alarmed about threats that never materialized didn’t do so well. They explored their environment less, foraged less, and were less likely to reproduce” (2020, Kindle location 103).

Prediction efficiently motivate action. We’re able to act without stressed with reactions after the predator pounces. Our ancestors faced ferocious predators with claws and fangs; we face equally horrid foes that seek our freedom, money, and peace of mind. If we can’t predict who they are, or what they will do we will be crushed by their ruthless attacks.

​Predictions: Unconscious and Conscious

When we think about predictions, we often default to conscious efforts to predict the future. We study financials, make budgets, evaluate relationship behaviors. Certainly, conscious considerations, drawing upon available resources, and organizing costs and benefits provides helpful guides to choices.  Yet in brain science and psychology theories, prediction refers to an unconscious process occurring in the brain and motivating action.

Both conscious an unconscious predictions share some characteristics. Joseph LeDoux wrote, “we live in a complex world where the physical and social environment changes from moment to moment and we often integrate immediate needs and past learning with predictions about the best course of action to take. We use our capacity to think, reason, and evaluate. We make decisions” (2003, kindle location 4,706).

Whether a prediction is made from conscious deliberations, or unconscious processing, accuracy depends on the quality of data. Both unconscious and conscious predictions are vulnerable to erroneous, unreliable, or misinterpreted facts.

​Conscious Prediction

Conscious prediction is a staple ingredient of workable plans of actions. Accurate predictions helps avoid downfalls, and prepare for unseen obstacles. Prediction is necessary for budgeting time and energy to complete large tasks. We predict expenses and save money to pay for expenses. Without accurate conscious prediction, life is exponentially more stressful.

Last year, a family escaped into the mountains for a hike. The woefully mispredicted the heat, their bodies needs, and the danger of dehydration. Mother, father, child and family dog died 1.6 miles from their car from heat exhaustion (2022, CBS News).

Unconscious Prediction

Barrett explains, “​your brain is wired to initiate your actions before you’re aware of them” (2020, Kindle Location 778). Unconscious prediction is such a fundamental activity of the brain that “many scientists consider it the brain’s primary purpose” (Barrett, 2017, p. 59).

Unconscious predictions is essentially neuronal activity. Our brain is having an internal conversation with itself. “A bunch of neurons make their best guess about what will happen in the immediate future based on whatever combination of past and present that your brain is currently conjuring” (2020, Kindle location 749).

Ledoux describes that through the unconscious decision making process “we compress trial-and-error learning experiences into an instantaneous mental evaluation about the consequence of a particular action will be for a given situation.” He continues that these predictive evaluations require “the on-line integration of information from diverse sources: perpetual information about the stimulus and situation, relevant facts and experiences stored in memory, feedback from emotional systems and the physiological consequences of emotional arousal, expectations about the consequences of different courses of action, and the like” (2003, Kindle location 4709).

Barrett and other scientists when explaining prediction are referring to the unconscious predictions that our brains constantly make. They are theorizing about “predictions at a microscopic scale as millions of neurons talk to one another” (Barrett, 2017, p. 59).

Prediction Error

Predictions are not perfect. We routinely predict wrongly. Errors in prediction is “a normal part of the operating system” (Barrett, 2017, p. 62).

​Jose M. Araya explains, “the difference between sensory predictions and the incoming sensory signals is known as prediction error” (2019). Our brain, according to predictive processing theories, is intimately involved in the process of prediction and evaluating the success and failures of those predictions by comparing subsequent interoceptive information. As Araya puts it, “All that the brain does, in all its functions, is to minimize prediction error (2019).

Our mind constantly creates tentative hypotheses to predictively interpret incoming information. When incoming information clashes with the hypothesis, we experience a cognitive dissonance—a momentary stutter, demanding altering the hypothesis to fit incoming signals. 

If we cling to our ill fitting hypothesis, the incoming signals create friction, and we trigger prediction error. Barrett points out that this second option of stubbornly sticking to the original prediction motivates filtering incoming sensory information so its consistent with the prediction (2017, p. 64).

​​Complexity and Predictive Psychology

Complexity is a reoccurring topic in many of the articles published here at Flourishing Life Society. When I research a topic, the underlying goal is clarity. This requires simplifying. However, psychology (well, most everything) does not exist in simplicity.

Predictive processes are more than a simple event, a hypothesis, prediction, and then final consequence certifying the prediction as correct or in error. Our brain’s predictive processes are not so linear. Predictions dynamically jump back and forth, both giving and receiving information. 

Most occurrences have a multitude of options, leaving our predictive brains with a plentitude of options for dealing with the given situation. Our predictive brain creates “a flurry of predictions and estimates probabilities for each one” (Barrett, 2020,Kindle location 753). 

Through the commotion and fuss the excited prediction process, emerges a prediction, seemingly instantaneously. Barrett warns that “often it’s the prediction that best matches the incoming data, but not always. Either way, the winning prediction becomes your action and your sensory experience” (Kindle location 755).

​Evaluating Predictions

Our predicting brain constantly is at work to validate or discredit predictions, checking predictions against the sense data coming from the world and interoceptive messages from within. As a prediction is validated, our neurons begin firing, integrating incoming sensory data (Kindle location 757). We are primed for action. Basically, our brains are on-line and motivating action. Consequently, we jump out of the way of the moving car before our conscious minds join the predictive party.

​Once these processes are set in motion with neurons firing together, and behavior responses forming, or completed, the task of the conscious mind to put on the brakes and change directions can be a significant, energy depleting chore.

​Budgeting Energy

Energy efficiency is key to survival. Predictions, therefore, become an essential process in budgeting the life force of survival. We budget energy by “automatically predicting and preparing to meet the body’s needs before they arise” (2020, Kindle location 102).

The body thrives when in homeostatic balance. When we get pushed from this biological sweet spot, illness creeps in, and systems begin to decay. Pushed too far from a homeostatic range and we die.

Events create stress, stress provides sensory information to our brains, we predict internal and external causes for our fluctuating biological states, and make adjustments, bringing our system back into an ideal state for growth.

We budget energy by predicting reoccurring stress, minimizing its impact through preparatory measures, and by budgeting energy to manage unavoidable encounters. “The value of any movement is intimately bound up with body budgeting allostasis” (Kindle location 119).

Each time we move our body, this includes all the splendid operations of survival such as a beating heart, and breathing lungs, we expend energy. Stress increases the energy needs of organs depleting this life force.

We replenish energy needs through rest and consumption. Our biological system is constantly engaged in spending and replenishing energy. We manage this flow of energy through constantly predicting our body’s energy needs. Barrett expounds on this, explaining, “your body-budgeting regions make predictions to estimate the resources to keep you alive and flourishing, using past experience as a guide” (2017, p. 69).

​Predictive Psychology and Emotion

Introspection is a key component in this process. By monitoring internal changes and energy demands, our predictive mind receives feedback on energy usage while also storing information into memory on the impact of internal and external events on our energy use.

Barrett wrote that “the interoceptive network issues predictions about our body, tests the resulting situations against sensory input from our body, and updates your brain model of your body in the world” (P. 67).

Araya theorizes that “emotions might arise via external interoceptive active inference, by sampling and modifying the external environment in order to change a valanced feeling” (2019).

Our emotional concepts arise from this dynamic interaction between environments, bodily reactions (feeling affects), and hypothetical meanings of the causes creating the internal fluctuations.  T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “feeling affects draw conscious attention to the feeling incident and we interpret the feeling, giving emotion labels that categorize and characterize the experience with greater granularity” (2021).

​Prediction Processes Brain Theory 

The predictive psychology process theory provides a powerful and substantially supported platform for understanding many of our behavioral and emotional functions. In conclusion, a key takeaway concept for wellness is exposing our minds to a diverse set of information, focusing on alternative possibilities. Indirectly, these encounters with a widening scaffold of knowledge may transform stale and failing predictions, updating our brains with relevant and current interpretations of our ever changing world.


Araya, J., & , (2019). Emotion and the predictive mind: Emotions as (almost) drives. Revista de Filosofia Aurora,.

​Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2020). Seven and Half Lessons about the Brain. Mariner Books

Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2017). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Mariner Books; Illustrated edition

Damasio, Antonio R. (2018). The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures.  ‎ Vintage

Ledoux, Joseph (2003). Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. Penguin Books

Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Emotion Differentiation. Psychology Fanatic. Published 9-17-2021. Accessed 3-7-2022.

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