Hindsight Bias: Why We View Events as More Predictable Than They Really Are

hindsight bias

The hindsight bias is one of many cognitive biases, and it is defined as the belief that an event is more predictable after it becomes known than it was before it became known. As a result, people tend to view events are more predictable than they are.

The bias involves the inability to remember the uncertainty that preceded an event, and the event therefore seems more predictable than it really is. The hindsight bias is also known as the knew-it-all-along effect.

A review by Roese & Vohs (2012) notes that more than 800 scholarly papers have examined the hindsight bias as the bias has important implications for decision-making processes.

The authors also state that the bias has been documented in various domains, such as labor disputes, terrorist attacks, medical diagnoses, consumer satisfaction, managerial choice, and policy etc.

Picture this situation:

“A patient sues for malpractice after her physician failed to detect a tumor in an earlier X-ray (which looks fine to the unaided eye). In court, a second physician offers testimony on the basis of a more recent X-ray (which reveals the unmistakable growth of a tumor). The second physician argues that the first physician should have been able to see the tumor in the earlier X-ray.”

This example illustrates the hindsight bias nicely because it involves second-guessing. Second-guessing implies that one uses currently available information to judge a person who had access only to limited pieces of information at the time the decision was made.

However, it is unfair to expect that a different physician would have known better. We only tend to think so because of the hindsight bias.

Why does the hindsight bias occur?

  • When people find it easy to conclude something, they will show greater hindsight bias: “easy” is misattributed to “certainty”
  • People have a need to see the world as predictable and find it threatening to believe that many outcomes are due to random events
  • People strive to maintain and enhance positive views of themselves. In explaining the past, people make themselves feel better by taking credit for success and blaming others for failure (self-serving bias)

Three levels of hindsight bias

  1. “I said it would happen”
  2. “It had to happen”
  3. “I knew it would happen”

The first level occurs because of memory distortion and a failure to recollect one’s earlier judgment. The second level involves the belief that a past event was predetermined. The third level involves beliefs about one’s own knowledge and ability, making one feel like knew-it-all-along.

Consequences of the hindsight bias

  • Myopia
  • Overconfidence

Myopia can either result in a narrow focus on a wrong cause or an exaggeration of the impact of a right cause.

A person may overestimate his or her ability to analyze a situation, and as a result, the person may overlook relevant perspectives.

How to avoid hindsight bias?

The consider-the-opposite strategy is consistently effective in avoiding the hindsight bias. It involves raising a person’s awareness of other possible explanations and cause–effect linkages.

The person is encouraged to consider and explain how outcomes that did not occur could have occurred otherwise (Roese & Vohs, 2012).

 Image: marcos fernandez