Hindsight bias: what is it about?

Hindsight bias: what is it about?

Did you think that what happened was logical for it to happen? Hindsight bias may be doing its thing.

Hindsight bias: what is it about?
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: January 11, 2022

The brain is a complex and fascinating organ; It allows us to reason, interpret situations and even anticipate the possible results of an event. However, this thought process is not foolproof. Frequently, we make mistakes without even being aware of them. This is what happens with hindsight, which makes us think that we knew what was going to happen, even before it happened.

We have all experienced the effects of this bias. Once we have observed the results and the outcome of a situation, it seems obvious to us that everything was going to unfold that way.

“I knew they wouldn’t take me for that job”, “It was clear that this relationship had no future”, “It was obvious who was going to win that match”. In short, everything seems very clear to us later, but at the time it was not so clear.

What is hindsight bias?

Hindsight bias is part of the multiple cognitive biases that we present and we use involuntarily daily. These cognitive biases are distortions in the reasoning process that lead us to interpret information in a way that is not very realistic.

We apply them, for example, when we judge a person based on stereotypes or when we follow groupthink (just because we are in the majority), believing that it really is our opinion.

In this case, the hindsight bias leads us to think that we knew exactly how something would happen. But we do it once we have the final results.

That is to say, we convince ourselves that we have foreseen an event, but when this has already taken place. A posterioriWe alter the memory of our past judgment so that it is compatible with what we know now. It could be said that we are biased by the knowledge acquired later.

The brain is affected by cognitive biases to interpret reality.


Some examples of hindsight bias

In everyday life we ​​can find many examples in this regard. For example:

  • When we discover that a person has been lying to us and We claimed that we always knew it was not to be trusted.
  • If two people were fighting, we thought there were clear signs that their relationship was not good.
  • If we are accepted into a college, we have the feeling that we always knew that it would be.
  • When a patient’s medical diagnosis is discovered, professionals may consider it obvious that was what was wrong with him.
  • When analyzing historical events, we consider that what happened was to be expected. This was demonstrated, for example, in a research in which the actions of a fictitious historical figure were exposed. The participants (both those who were told that he performed heroic and cowardly actions himself) considered that it was evident that the character was going to act like this.
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Research about it

This cognitive bias has been confirmed through abundant and interesting scientific studies which show that it occurs in many different situations. For example, in a study, the researchers asked a series of volunteers to assess the likelihood of certain events occurring during an international tour of President Richard Nixon. Later, they were asked to estimate the odds that they believed they had previously offered themselves.

The results showed that, given the events that had indeed occurred, the estimates were much higher than they were in the first instance. That is, people overestimated their past ability to predict the future.

In another study, participants were presented with a report with four possible outcomes. Each group was informed that a different outcome had actually occurred and asked to estimate the probability of each scenario occurring. In all cases, the result that was considered true was evaluated as much more probable.

What’s more, it has been observed that a posteriori, we not only simplify the analysis, but we are much tougher and more critical when the result is unfavorable. For example, in one investigation, a group of doctors were asked to review clinical notes. For all of them they were identical and only differed in the patient’s result (positive in some cases and negative in others). When the result was negative, the professionals made much harsher criticism.



Why is it produced?

There are several causes and related factors that can contribute to hindsight bias:

  • The human brain works on patterns and associations of ideas. Thus, when a consequence follows a cause, we unite it as a single pattern that allows us to remember it and foresee similar situations in the future.
  • On the other hand, human beings do not like uncertainty. We need to perceive that the world is a predictable and controllable place.
  • Once we observe and understand how an event has happened, it seems more likely and predictable to us. However, before obtaining this information, this was not the case.
  • Events whose outcome has a negative value are more likely to cause hindsight bias. In other words, the situations that we classify as unfortunate seem much more predictable once they have occurred, than the positive ones.
  • When a result surprises us greatly, this bias only appears if we can find congruence between the information we had at the beginning and the actual outcome. Otherwise, the opposite effect will arise and we will think that there was no way to know.
Failed or negative situations tend to create hindsight bias more often.

Hindsight bias can affect our decisions

This bias is present in both children and adults and it does not suppose any pathology; it is just a mental shortcut that helps us to obtain a greater sense of coherence. However, it can affect us.

For example, by altering the memory of our past judgment, we may believe that we are better able to predict and guess an outcome than we truly are. And this confidence can lead us to make the wrong decisions. Therefore, although we cannot prevent it from happening, knowing it and staying alert is of great help.

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