When we look at the past with the eyes of the present, the current knowledge often distorts our memory. We think we knew what was going to happen, when in reality we did not. That tendency to think that we knew what was going to happen can play tricks on us and cause us to blame ourselves for things that we could not really foresee.
In fact, it doesn’t just happen to us on a personal level. This hindsight bias also extends to the professional area. Doctors, for example, often overestimate their ability to have foreseen the outcome of a case and claim to have known it from the start. Historians are also prone to this bias when describing the outcome of a battle and even judges are not save when they judge a case as they think that both the accused and the victim could have foreseen in a certain way what was going to happen.
What is hindsight bias?
In the mid-1970s, researchers Beyth and Fischhoff conducted a very interesting experiment in which they asked participants to judge the probability that certain results would occur before Richard Nixon traveled to Beijing and Moscow.
Some time after President Nixon returned, those same people were asked to recall or reconstruct the probabilities they had assigned to each outcome. They found that they overestimated the probabilities for the events that had occurred and downplayed the rest. In other words, people tended to think that they knew what was going to happen, although they did not.
That same year, Fischhoff conducted another experiment in which he gave people a short story with four possible outcomes, but indicated in advance that one of them was true. Then he asked them to assign a probability for each particular outcome. Thus he found that people tend to assign a higher probability of occurrence to whatever result they have been told to be true.
Thus arose the concept of hindsight bias, also knew-it-all-along-phenomenon or creeping detrminism. It is a cognitive bias that occurs when we know what has happened but we modify our memories of the previous opinion in favor of the final result. Also called creeping determinism, it is the tendency to think that past events were more predictable than they actually were.
After an event occurs, we think we could have predicted it, or we believe that we knew the results with a high degree of certainty before it occurred. In practice, once we know the final result, we modify our memory to think that we knew what was going to happen, as if we were some kind of Nostradamus.
What happens is that current knowledge generates a false memory that makes us think that we knew what was going to happen, when in reality it was not.
What makes us think that we knew what was going to happen?
There are different factors that can increase or minimize our tendency to think that we already knew what was going to happen. A study conducted at the University of Texas found that hindsight bias is more common when the outcome of an event is negative rather than positive, demonstrating our tendency to pay more attention to negative event outcomes than positive ones.
Furthermore, the more severe the negative results, the more intense that bias. In this sense, an example of hindsight bias occurred in 1996 when LaBine proposed a scenario in which a psychiatric patient had told a therapist that he was contemplating harming another person. However, the therapist did not warn that person of the danger that he could be in.
Each participant was given three possible outcomes: the person in distress was not injured, was slightly injured, or seriously injured. They were then asked to determine the level of negligence of the therapist. When “serious injuries” were mentioned, people were more likely to rate the therapist as negligent and said the attack was more predictable.
Surprise also influences the way we reconstruct pre-outcome predictions. For example, if we believe that a result was practically impossible, we are less likely to be victims of hindsight bias. In practice, when an event takes us completely by surprise, it is unlikely that when we look back we will think that we knew or anticipated it.
The consequences of hindsight bias
Hindsight bias can cause distortions of memories of what we knew or believed before an event occurred. This can lead to increased confidence in our performance and ability to predict the results of future events, which can be positive or negative. Although it is a distortion, as long as it is kept within reasonable limits, it is positive since it helps us to cope safely with the adverse situations by increasing confidence in our decisions.
However, when that trust is excessive and unfounded it can become negative and lead us to make hasty decisions that are not supported by a careful analysis of the situation. In fact, hindsight bias also diminishes our rational thinking due to the intense emotions that are often associated with the events to which it refers, in a way that can expose us more to extreme pessimism or toxic optimism.
In addition, hindsight bias can affect our ability to learn from experiences, as it will prevent us from learning from mistakes. If we look back and think that we already knew everything, we will be less likely to analyze our mistakes. In turn, that certainty can generate a great feeling of guilt. In fact, many people recriminate themselves for what happened in the past thinking that they could have prevented it since they assume they knew what was going to happen.
This bias can also lead us to misjudge people. For example, hindsight bias can lead a jury to think that the defendants were capable of preventing the poor outcome, so they could be more severe. Likewise, when plaintiffs take a risk, the jury may think that they should have acted more cautiously since they could foresee the consequences, which could lead to a more condescending verdict with the defendant, even activating the belief in a just world that leads to blame the victim.
How to mitígate the hindsight bias?
It is very difficult to escape the hindsight bias. Later knowledge is like a veil through which we often look at and evaluate the past. However, one strategy to combat this natural tendency is to think in all possible ways, so that we do not limit ourselves only to what happened. It is worth remembering all the options that we valued at that time and the information that we had. That won’t make the bias go away, but it will at least mitigate it.
Another clue comes from a study conducted at California State University. Cavillo found that there is a relationship between the amount of time we spend responding and the intensity of the bias when recalling our initial judgments. In practice, if we have more time to reflect on what happened, the hindsight bias is reduced. So we just have to take the time to try to reconstruct how we felt and what we really thought.
Oeberst, A. & Goeckenjan, I. (2016) When being wise after the event results in injustice: Evidence for hindsight bias in judges’ negligence assessments. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law; 22(3): 271–279.
Calvillo, Dustin P. (2013) Rapid recollection of foresight judgments increases hindsight bias in a memory design. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition; 39 (3): 959–964.
Harley, E. M. (2007) Hindsight bias in legal decision making. Social Cognition; 25(1): 48–63.
Schkade, D.; Kilbourne, L. (1991) Expectation-Outcome Consistency and Hindsight Bias. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes; 49: 105–123.
Beyth, R. & Fischhoff, B. (1975) I knew it would happen: Remembered probabilities of once—future things. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance; 13(1): 1-16.
Fischhoff, B. (1975) Hindsight is not equal to foresight: The effect of outcome knowledge on judgment under uncertainty. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance; 1(3): 288–299.