The Echoes of the Mind (81) Hindsight Bias

Hindsight Bias

Anything seems commonplace, once explained. ~ Doctor Watson to Sherlock Holmes

A common cognitive bias comes in hindsight. Most everything seems obvious once you know about it.

Hindsight bias projects new knowledge into the past, accompanied by a denial that knowing the outcome has influenced judgment. Those who learn of an outcome and claim that they “knew it all along” are fooling themselves.

When people know how an event turned out, they are usually unable to reproduce the judgments they would have made without outcome knowledge. Furthermore, they are unaware of their inability to recapture their pre-outcome state of mind. ~ American philosopher David Wasserman et al

People make sense of the past by superimposing structure and simplifying their recollection. Knowing the outcome is effortlessly assimilated into this schematic, and so unknowingly affects perception of causality. Only in hindsight can an outcome appear inevitable.

In retrospect, we perceive the logic of the events which unfold themselves according to a recognizable pattern with an inner necessity. So we get the impression that it really could not have happened otherwise. ~ American psychologist Baruch Fischhoff

Gathering any sort of impression about the contingency of events or the inevitability of an outcome comes from counterfactual thought. To the degree that counterfactuals are easily generated, the past seems less inevitable, as other outcomes were possible.

More often, the mind seeks to comprehend how an outcome came about by sussing its causal elements. Being able to explain breeds certainty. Hence, by increasing the likelihood of an outcome, counterfactual thinking can heighten hindsight bias.

In hindsight, people consistently exaggerate what could have been anticipated in foresight. They not only tend to view what has happened as being inevitable, but also to view it as having appeared “relatively inevitable” before it happened. People believe that others should have been able to anticipate events much better than was actually the case. They even misremember their own predictions so as to exaggerate in hindsight what they knew in foresight. ~ Baruch Fischhoff

Once an outcome or fact is acknowledged, it is impossible for the mind to revert to its previous state. Knowledge is cumulative; like a bucket that can only be filled, never emptied. You cannot unknow something.

What is the image below of? Look carefully before reading further.

There is a Dalmatian sniffing the ground, its head in the center of the picture. Once you spot the dog, it is hard not to see it. The mind refuses to return to a prior state.

Life is lived forwards but understood backwards. ~ Søren Kierkegaard

The inability to subtract what is known is the curse of knowledge.  Information purveyors – teachers, authors, and technology developers – often assume that what is clear to them will also be clear to others. They realize that others lack their expertise, but it remains a challenge not to underestimate a lack of knowledge and devise the best way to help someone mount a learning curve.

Once we know something, we can’t imagine ever thinking otherwise. ~ American economist Richard Thaler