Hindsight is not foresight

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We all know that creeping feeling. The feeling that you just knew something was going to happen. It might be that you just knew your best friend would eventually get a call from the guy she dated, or that you just knew that Chelsea would beat Manchester United by a large margin in the final match. Unfortunately, you do not have psychic powers or the ability to predict the future. In fact, your experience is not foresight, but hindsight bias.

Hindsight bias is also appropriately known as creeping determinism or the ‘knew-it-all-along’ effect. It refers to the inclination to view an event or outcome, once it has occurred, as predictable or ‘obvious’ even though no objective evidence previously existed to support this conclusion. Although it was unnamed at the time, hindsight bias had been described by philosophers, historians and physicians long before it was the subject of psychological study. In 1973, Baruch Fischhoff, who was only a graduate student at the time, saw an opportunity for psychological research spearheaded by the study of Tversky and Kahneman regarding the likelihood of events surrounding then President Nixon’s visit to Beijing. In his 1975 study, Fischhoff’s participants were presented with four possible outcomes and were also told which outcome was true i.e. had already occurred. They were then asked to rate these outcomes according to likelihood. The results of Fischhoff’s study revealed that the participants frequently assigned a higher likelihood to the ‘true’ outcome.

You might think that these results are obvious (see what happened there?), but there are several levels to hindsight bias that make it more complicated than simply thinking you knew it all along. According to Roese and Vohs, there are three levels of hindsight bias that stack on top of each other. The first level, memory distortion, involves misremembering an earlier opinion or judgment. For example, you may say to your friend “I knew he would call you” despite having told her yesterday that she should cut her losses. The second level is inevitability, which is the belief that the outcome had to happen because it was inevitable. The third level is foreseeability, which is the belief that you could personally have foreseen the event as illustrated in the statement “I knew it would happen”.

Ultimately, hindsight bias is problematic because it gets in the way of our learning experiences. While it may provide us with confidence and assurance in our decision-making, it inhibits rational thinking by evoking strong emotions or preventing us from learning from past experiences. Additionally, it may decrease our sensitivity towards a victim of an event, like a car accident, because we feel that the victim should have foreseen the event just as we believe we did. In this respect, it is important to keep in mind that failures or negative outcomes often seem more predictable than positive ones. Unfortunately, according to research, hindsight bias cannot be eradicated completely, but it can be mitigated by actively trying to consider the probability of other outcomes or events. This hypotheses testing could be strategically carried out particularly in negative situations, like a car crash, to fight hindsight bias. Furthermore, research has shown that the increased use of technology to record our every move makes it easier to lessen the effects of hindsight bias, which often result in inaccurate story-telling and the typical ‘he said, she said’ narrative.

So, if you find yourself saying, “it should have been obvious’’ on a regular basis, do not panic. It is likely that it was not that obvious after all.

Read more about hindsight bias here:

Fischhoff’s 1975 study on remembered probabilities

Roese’s 2012 take on understanding hindsight bias

Louie, Rajan & Sibley’s 2007 applications of hindsight bias in decision-making settings