John Tauer Ph.D.

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Monday Morning Quarterbacking: The Case of the Hindsight Bias

Teaching kids how to be more rational in evaluating decisions

Posted Nov 25, 2009

In last week's blog, we analyzed Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th down and 2 late in the game vs. Indianapolis. This was an unconventional but statistically sound decision. When the move didn't work, Belichick received considerable criticism. Many called it the worst coaching decision he had ever made. That's a large statement, given the length of Belichick's coaching career and the fact that the decision was logical and data driven. Why is it that coaches receive so much criticism when their decisions don't turn out well?

The hindsight bias occurs when we say those famous words: "I knew it all along". We hear these words Monday morning after football games.

"I knew the Giants would upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl."

"I knew they should have punted the ball."

"I knew they should have changed quarterbacks."

The hindsight bias is pervasive - it is certainly not limited to the world of sports. Whether it is gamblers saying after the fact they knew what would happen, or the media after a tragedy explaining how we should have known it would happen, we all fall prey to the hindsight bias.

Whenever I give an exam back, several students can be heard muttering to themselves, "I knew the answer to #42 was (b)." My typical response is to tell them that I've never had a student intentionally answer a question incorrectly, so why, if they knew the answer was (b), did they circle (a)? This usually brings a chuckle from them, and reminds them gently of how common the hindsight bias can be. The danger of this bias is that rather than addressing why they answered a question incorrectly, it can lead students to mistakenly assume they actually knew the answer.

Fischoff conducted classic research on the hindsight bias when he asked some participants whether they agreed with the following statement:

"Social psychologists have conducted research on attraction. They have found that ‘Opposites attract.'"

Other participants read the following:

"Social psychologists have conducted research on attraction. They have found that ‘Birds of a feather flock together.'"

When I conduct this demonstration in class, over 80% of participants typically agree with these statements, regardless of which statement they read. Clearly, both of these statements cannot be true, yet we are adept at coming up with cases to support either statement.

Similarly, fans are quick to make judgments about coaches' decisions, when in many cases, it is difficult to know what decision is correct. One of the many lessons our children can learn from sports is how to use statistics to make sound decisions. I have seen many kids who do not love math class but get energized by numbers when they are computing baseball batting averages or evaluating a decision to for it on 4th down based on probability theory. It's easy to evaluate decisions after the fact, yet this type of hindsight is 20-20. To aid children in making decisions, one thing we can do is ask them for their opinions on decisions before the outcome. This forces them to think through a decision that requires logic.

One way I try to practice this is in my work as the Offensive Coordinator for the University of St. Thomas men's basketball team. We talk a lot about shot selection. It is easy to commit the hindsight bias in evaluating the quality of a shot because it quickly becomes apparent whether the shot went in or not. There are the tough shots where a coach is heard uttering, "No, no, no....Good shot!" There are also the easy shots that are missed when a coach asks, "Why did you take that shot?" Neither one of these responses is rational, yet they appear to be natural responses because after the fact, it is difficult for us to imagine that we didn't know what the outcome would be.
To combat the hindsight bias, one thing we do is evaluate each shot as soon as it is taken. That way, players are provided feedback of whether it was a good shot regardless of whether the shot went in or not. This encourages a focus on the process of doing things the right way, as opposed to simply focusing on the outcome, which can ignore whether a shot was ill-advised or not.

By using sports as a teaching tool for developing rational behavior, kids can learn to make good decisions based on empirical evidence. Encouraging our kids to evaluate others' decisions ahead of time helps kids learn that each of us is fallible in our decision making and that nobody has all their decisions turn out the way they intended.

On Thanksgiving, may all your decisions sail straight through the goal posts...and even if a decision misses, don't second guess yourself, those coaches, or your decision to have an extra slice of extra pumpkin pie!

About the Author

John Tauer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and Head Men's Basketball Coach at the University of St. Thomas. He is also the author of Why Less is More for WOSPs: How to be the Best Sports Parent you can Be

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