Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Bias

What We Can Learn From Hindsight Bias

Anything seems obvious, after the fact.

Key points

  • Hindsight bias is the feeling that we knew it all along.
  • Don’t judge well-intentioned actions too harshly.
  • What may be clear to you now was not nearly so clear at the time the decision was made.
Character Lab, used with permission
Character Lab, used with permission

Today, we’ve asked David G. Myers to share his Tip of the Week.

After the stock market drops, we say it was due for a correction. After a nail-biting game, we fault the losing coach for the obviously bad call on the final play. After an election, its outcome seems predictable.

Such is hindsight bias, the feeling that we knew it all along.

No matter what we observe, there seems to be an after-the-fact proverb that “explains” it. Do “birds of a feather flock together” or do “opposites attract?” Does “absence make the heart grow fonder” or is it “out of sight, out of mind”? Can we not “teach an old dog new tricks” or are we “never too old to learn”?

The lesson of hindsight bias is not that common-sense judgment usually errs. Rather, common sense describes what has happened better than it predicts what will happen.

Hindsight bias also has a way of making history seem like a series of inevitable events. Because outcomes, once known, seem predictable, we tend to blame decision makers for what seem in retrospect to be “obvious” bad judgments, and not to praise them for good judgments, which also seem “obvious.” In actuality, the future is seldom foreseen. No one’s diary recorded, “Today, the Hundred Years’ War began.”

It’s important to recognize hindsight bias and not blame yourself for what seem like “stupid mistakes.” After an angry conversation with a child, you might imagine what you should have said. Instead, use that instinct as the impetus for a better follow-up talk. After a teen caves to peer influence, you might think, “I should have realized those friends couldn’t be trusted.” But rather than kick yourself, help them think about how they might make a different decision the next time they feel pressured.

Don’t judge well-intentioned actions too harshly.

Do remember that anything seems obvious once it happens. And help the young people in your life recognize that what is clear to them now was not nearly so clear at the time they made a decision. As the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard recognized, “Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards.”

David G. Myers is a professor of psychology at Hope College and the author of How Do We Know Ourselves?: Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind, from which this essay is adapted. Also published on Character Lab.

advertisement
More from Angela Duckworth Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today