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How Hindsight Bias Affects How We View the Past

Have you ever noticed that events seem more predictable after they have already happened? The results of an election, for example, often seem more obvious after the tallies have been counted. They say that hindsight is 20/20. In other words, things always seem more obvious and predictable after they have already happened.

In psychology, this is what is referred to as the hindsight bias. This bias can have a major impact on not only your beliefs but also on your behaviours.

This article takes a closer look at how the hindsight bias works. It also explores how it might influence some of the beliefs you hold as well as the decisions you make on a day-to-day basis.

What Is Hindsight Bias?

The term "hindsight bias" refers to the tendency people have to view events as more predictable than they are. Before an event takes place, while you might be able to offer a guess as to the outcome, there is really no way to know what's going to happen.

After an event, people often believe that they knew the outcome of the event before it happened. This is why it is often referred to as the "I knew it all along" phenomenon.

For example, after a person's favourite team loses the Super Bowl, they might feel convinced that they knew the team was going to lose (even though they didn't feel that way before the game). The phenomenon has been demonstrated in several different situations, including politics and sporting events. In experiments, people often recall their predictions before the event as much stronger than they were.

Causes of Hindsight Bias

So what exactly causes this bias to happen? Researchers suggest that three key variables interact to contribute to this tendency to see things as more predictable than they are.

  • Cognitive: People tend to distort or even misremember their earlier predictions about an event. It may be easier to recall information that is consistent with their current knowledge.

  • Metacognitive: When people can easily understand how or why an event happened, that event can seem like it was easily foreseeable.

  • Motivational: People like to think of the world as a predictable place. Believing an outcome was inevitable can be comforting for some people.

When all three of these factors occur readily in a situation, hindsight bias is more likely to occur.

When a movie reaches its end and the viewer discovers who the killer was, they might look back on their memory of the film and misremember their initial impressions of the guilty character.

They might also look at all the situations and secondary characters and believe that given these variables, it was clear what was going to happen. So they might walk away from the film thinking that they knew the outcome all along, but the reality is that they probably didn't.

Impact of Hindsight Bias

One potential problem with this way of thinking is that it can lead to overconfidence. If people mistakenly believe that they have exceptional foresight or intuition, they might become too confident and more likely to take unnecessary risks.

Such risks might be financial, such as placing too much of your nest egg in a risky stock portfolio. They might also be emotional, such as investing too much of themselves in a bad relationship.

Blaming the victim is another possible effect of hindsight bias. People often believe that since they "knew" what was going to happen all along (because of hindsight bias), the victim of a crime, accident or other tragedy should have also been able to easily predict the outcome.

Overcoming Hindsight Bias

Is there anything that you can do to counteract the hindsight bias? There are several tactics you might try to reduce how this bias influences your thoughts and behaviours:

  • Consider alternative outcomes: Researchers suggest that one way to counteract this bias is to consider things that might have happened but didn't. By mentally reviewing potential outcomes, people might gain a more balanced view of an outcome's apparent inevitability.

  • Keep a decision journal: Writing down your thinking about a problem and solution is one way to minimize the effects of hindsight bias. Instead of looking back and believing that you knew the answer all along, a journal means you'll have a written record of your thinking process as you worked through a specific problem.

  • Remember your original judgments: Research suggests that intentionally retrieving the memory of your original judgment before you recall the correct outcome can help eliminate hindsight bias.


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