Have you ever done something stupid and then reprimanded yourself for doing it? We’ve all had moments where we question our own intelligence and/or let ourselves down a little bit with a lapse in judgement, attention or foresight. And often it all just seems so obvious after the fact. You knew that wasn’t going to work… so why on Earth did you still do it?
But perhaps you’re being a little hard on yourself? Hindsight bias would seem to suggest that this may very well be the case and that perhaps you should go a little easier on yourself in future…
What Is Hindsight Bias?
Hindsight bias is sometimes referred to as the ‘knew-it-all-along effect’ or ‘creeping determinism’. This is a ‘cognitive bias’ meaning that it’s a flaw in the way we think and it’s one that has an unfortunate tendency to make us hard on ourselves…
Essentially, hindsight bias describes our tendency to think things were more obvious at the time than they really were. As they say: ‘hindsight is 20/20’ but it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between how easy something is right now and how easy it would have been at the time.
Let’s say that you gave an answer in an interview that went down very badly and ruined your chances of getting the job. The interviewer then later sends you an email explaining where you went wrong in your answers and why you didn’t get the job and this explains the mistake in unfortunately stark detail. With that explanation, you can now see why it’s obvious that the answer you gave was a bad one – it made you look unconfident!
But now comes the question of ‘why didn’t you know it at the time?’. And in many cases, you feel as though it was obvious and even that you actually did know it all along. You knew it wouldn’t work out… so why did you still go with that question?
Another example might be someone judging a person’s character after they cheat on your friend. At this point, it’s very easy to say that you ‘never liked them’ and even to believe that this was the case. Very often though, this is actually a trick of the mind.
What Causes Hindsight Bias
So what causes hindsight bias? There are actually a few different explanations and in all likelihood, the truth will involve several of these factors combined.
One possibility is that this is a form of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when the way you act is in discord with information you know. You now know that you gave a bad answer and yet you did it. This doesn’t seem to be logical and so the brain ‘fixes’ your memory slightly to create a more likely scenario – you always knew.
This may also be linked with ‘confirmation bias’, which is our tendency to give extra attention to information that confirms an existing belief (and ignore information that challenges our beliefs). If you had several hunches about something, then at some point you might have been right and this is the point that you may focus on after the fact.
For instance, when prepping for your interview and choosing which answers to give, you might have had moments of doubt – even if they were very brief. After the fact, you can then focus on those moments of doubt and this then makes it appear as though you knew all along – even if you were happy with the answer 90% of the time (happy enough to give that as the answer, in fact!).
Another explanation is that hindsight bias is the result of an actual memory distortion and that the date at which you received the information has somehow been stored with the wrong ‘timestamp’ so that we think the knowledge came before the true revelation.
And of course Freud might say something about us protecting our Ego…
This might sound like a somewhat amusing human tendency toward narcissism but in fact, hindsight bias can be a serious problem in some circumstances and might even limit your potential self-growth.
For starters, it’s important to be able to honestly assess and appraise the outcome of a situation in order to ensure a more positive outcome next time. If we assume that we knew what was going to happen all along, then we might not bother to assess the outcome in detail in order to do a real post-mortem. This has also been posited as a potential limiting factor in scientific research. If researchers are as guilty of confirmation bias as the rest of us, then it might lead to inaccurate results being published which could potentially hamper scientific progress!
The only solution is to be aware of this problem – both in ourselves and on a wider scale – and to take it with a pinch of salt when anyone tells us that they ‘knew all along’.