The world is full of uncertainty. Right now, we sit poised to watch the outcome of the 2012 presidential election. The poll numbers bounce around. New speeches will be given daily by the candidates. The presidential debates have not yet started. There are likely to be new revelations that influence people’s opinions about the candidates.
At this moment, ask yourself how confident you are that Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is going to win the election.
No matter what your level of confidence is in the outcome, chances are that after the election is over, your confidence that the winner was actually going to win will be higher than it is now. Psychologists call this tendency hindsight bias, though you can think of it as the belief that you knew it all along.
A new review paper in the September 2012 issue of Perspectives in Psychological Science by Neal Roese and Kathleen Vohs summarizes the research on hindsight bias.
When they review the research, they identify two kinds of factors that promote hindsight bias.
First, there are influences on memory and knowledge. After an event has happened, you know the outcome, and so that outcome is easier to think about than the alternative. In 2008, Barack Obama won the election, and so that alternative is easier to think about than one in which John McCain won. This ease (or fluency) makes the outcome feel more certain. In addition, your memory for the uncertainty you felt initially tends to fade over time, and that makes it harder to remember that you once were not sure what was going to happen. Finally, after an event like an election, there is a lot of discussion about why it happened. These explanations also increase your belief that the outcome was inevitable.
The second influence on hindsight bias is motivational. In general, our cognitive system tries to resolve inconsistencies. The familiar “cognitive dissonance” effects occur when people hold inconsistent beliefs. This inconsistency often results in people changing their beliefs in subtle ways to make them more compatible with each other. These mechanisms kick in after an event occurs as well. The world as it is now often matters more than the world as it might have been. As a result, your beliefs tend to shift to make the past feel more like the world as it is today. That shift can make you feel as if you knew what was going to happen.
Why does this matter?
Your beliefs about why an event happened affects how you react to it in the future. If you believe that something was inevitable, then you may not spend much time thinking about how things could have come out differently. As a result, you may not uncover factors that might influence future outcomes.
For example, most new businesses do not succeed. There are many factors that contribute to the success or failure of any new venture. If you start a business and it fails, you may ultimately come to believe that there were clear reasons that doomed the business to failure. As a result, you may not see all of the things you did that nearly made it succeed. In this way, you may not take away valuable lessons that will help you succeed in the future.
One suggestion that the authors make for counteracting hindsight bias is to spend some time thinking explicitly about how things could have turned out otherwise. For example, after the next presidential election, spend some time thinking about all of the reasons why the other candidate might have won. This exercise will have two benefits. First, it will help you hold on to the uncertainty you are feeling right now about the outcome. Second, it will help you think about all of the reasons why the world could be different than it is. And these reasons may help you deal with new situations in the future.
Follow me on Twitter. I am confident that you’ll be happy you did.
Follow me on Facebook and Google+.
Check out my book Smart Thinking (Perigee)