What is ‘hindsight bias’ and how can you stop it from affecting your future plans?

Think back to the last mistake you made. It may have been a project which seemed so strong in its construction, only to have collapsed during the execution. It could have been a lapse in judgement, a tactical error, or something out of your control entirely. All of these causes may differ, but one way in which they relate is how we look back on them with the feeling, however nonsensical, that we should have seen the result coming; that it was obviously going to fail. We lay the blame on our lack of foresight. If this sounds familiar then read on, because it might not be true, and it might be holding you back.

The phenomenon we’re referring to is a logical memory fallacy commonly known as Hindsight Bias, or ‘Known-All-Along’ thinking. And it doesn’t just apply to our own personal experiences. For example, these days we look back at major historic events, such as the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, and with our knowledge of how the war had flowed until then, it seems so inevitable that an atomic bomb would be the endpoint. But in reality, even high ranking officers on both sides could not have predicted such a devastating outcome would occur, let alone leave such a lasting impact. Hindsight bias might make us believe that if those events were to play out again then it would lead to the same inevitable outcome, but change just a few details and the outcome could have been very different.

Hindsight bias is a funny creature. It can increase our confidence in an outcome by changing details in the way we remember past experiences. For projects that failed we see a lot more of our failure, and the way in which we let it happen, than we should. It is easy for this to lead to a belief that we sabotage our own productivity, because we should have known that it was a dud to begin with, almost like we are deliberately wasting our time. On the flip-side, when thinking back on successful projects hindsight bias glosses over the potential tripping points that occurred, and lead us to think that since it worked last time it’s sure to work next time. Of course neither is necessarily true, as the specific circumstances will be different every time. That’s where the danger of hindsight bias lies.

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How does the science behind hindsight Bias work?

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A multi-disciplinary review of Hindsight bias was undertaken in 2012 by psychological scientists Roese and Vohs, with results suggesting that Hindsight bias occurs on three separate cognitive levels, which stack to form a warped perspective that we can often mistake as reality.

At the most basic level, Memory distortion, we create a warped account of the events passed, often by misremembering a pre-existing opinion or judgement of the situation. Whether this judgement was doubt, fear or hesitance, it may only have lasted for a fraction of a second, or perhaps not even at a conscious level. The warped retrieval of this judgement in any case will be hardly representative of the initial though.

This judgement that has risen to the surface in hindsight is further reinforced by the second level; Inevitability. Here we find the brain creating a new belief that the events which have unfolded were almost compulsory. By thinking that the event was always going to happen, we are made to feel foolish for trying to go against the forces of nature.

By the third level, Foreseeability, we have placed scorn in our ability to not recognise the ‘solid’ nature of the events which have passed, and as a result we form a belief that we should have been able to see the situation occurring such as it did, long beforehand.

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How can we work around Hindsight Bias?

The fallibility of human memory is capable of creating numerous roadblocks in our ability to learn and coordinate our actions. The issue of hindsight bias can occur before we even start! Overconfidence in our memory can fuel a common error of logic; thinking without attempting to seek disconfirming evidence. This leads to a forced narrative created by the events we have known to pass, which can have serious drawbacks. Namely, important information can be disregarded for not fitting the narrative of events we have created in our mind. We encourage all readers to be critical thinkers, and as a critical thinker it is essential to take this concept with you; knowing the outcome of an event biases our recall.

“If you feel like you knew it all along, it means you won’t stop to examine why something really happened. It’s often hard to convince seasoned decision makers that they might fall prey to hindsight bias.”
(Roese, 2012)

With the understanding of hindsight bias, you should be able to identify when it is in effect.

When you next reflect on a project which has turned out how you ‘expected all along’, try to critically review the following questions:

The Prediction:

  • When I first got a feeling of how things would turn out, what evidence did I have?
  • Why was I certain that this would turn out as it did?
  • Was it just a gut feeling?
  • Is it possible that this feeling has inflated after the fact?

The Project:

  • Is it possible that I am misremembering how I viewed the project?
  • What positive aspects can I recall about creating the project? (keep in mind that it is unlikely that no positive aspects existed beforehand; one clear sign that you are reflecting on the past with bias).

The outcome:

  • Was the outcome really inevitable?
  • Can this be proven with a causal link?
  • Can this be statistically proven to have likely occurred this way?
  • How could this have panned out differently?
  • What could be done to make this different?

By critically reviewing the factors which make hindsight bias occur, situations which feel like an inevitable failure can now be reassessed to find the more objective data that was initially dismissed by bias. From this, we can separate the inevitable, the chance, and the areas which needed improvement.

It is important to realise that mistakes an and will happen, and that not every mistake will be so clear when it first reveals itself. Holding on to the guilt of past mistakes, much like holding onto blind superstitions of past successes, will only cause roadblocks in understanding the true causal nature of your actions. To Err is Human, and for as long as you are discovering new errors, you are never failing; only learning.

“You Tried something, you found out you were wrong, and now you know what not to do next time. Eureka! You have learned something. Isn’t that important? Isn’t it the product of some daring, some effort, and a drive to learn?”
Paul Hauck