Hindsight Bias: Why Everything Seems Obvious Once It Has Happened

Hindsight bias

Human thinking is constantly guided by a whole series of biases, some easier to identify than others.

This time we are going to focus on retrospective bias, a psychological mechanism that we use more frequently than we think and that produces an effect that some people are more aware of than others. Below we will explore why this phenomenon happens.

What is hindsight bias?

Retrospective bias or hindsight bias is a deviation in the human cognitive process by which there is a tendency to consider that an event, once it has taken place, was much more predictable than it actually was In other words, a person who indulges in this bias will believe that a certain event, which has already happened, was foreseeable, when in reality it did not have to be that way.

This phenomenon is also called progressive determinism. Hindsight bias carries a number of consequences. Firstly, a subject’s memories about the specific event may suffer distortion, since to accommodate the effect of said bias, the person may unconsciously modify the data that they thought they knew about said event before it took place.

That is, the person will think that they knew better what was going to happen than they actually knew beforehand. Not only is it a problem of distortion of the past, but hindsight bias can also affect the future, as it can foster trust based on distorted facts in the face of future events. Therefore, the person might think that he has greater capacity for control than he actually has.

Discovery of retrospective bias in scientific research

Although this concept began to be used in psychology studies since the 70s of the last century, the truth is that It was already a widely known phenomenon in popular culture, although it was not yet designated by that technical name In fact, it had already been observed in different fields of study.

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For example, there are studies that indicate that many doctors believe they have a greater diagnostic capacity than they really have, because once the ailment suffered by the patient has been found, they seem to estimate the certainty with which they knew the said condition above the real percentage. diagnosis in advance.

Retrospective bias has also been observed in numerous works carried out by historians who, knowing in advance the outcome of certain events, seem to consider them obvious and inevitable in their analyses, when they did not have to be so obvious to the people who experienced said events firsthand. events at that particular moment in history.

But It was in the 70s when it was brought to the academic field of psychology, by two Israeli researchers: Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky These authors tried to find the bases of retrospective bias. They concluded that this phenomenon was supported by two others, which were the representativeness heuristic and the availability heuristic.

The representativeness heuristic is used when we want to estimate the probability that a certain event will happen knowing that another event that is somehow related has occurred. Therefore, the key is to assess how much of that first event the second one could represent.

In the case of the availability heuristic, this is another mechanism that has to do with hindsight bias. In this case, said heuristic would imply the use of the most accessible examples for an individual about a certain topic in order to evaluate that category as a whole. That is to say, I would be taking the concrete in order to be able to decide on the general

In Tversky and Kahneman’s studies, they asked volunteers to rate how likely they saw a series of actions during an international tour by the US president at the time, who was Richard Nixon. Some time later, they were summoned again so that, once the president’s efforts were finished.

On this occasion what They were asked to estimate what probabilities they believed they had considered in the first part of the study, this time already knowing the results of the actions carried out by Nixon. It was found that, indeed, when the event had really happened, the subjects gave it a greater probability compared to those that did not happen.

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Another study, in this case carried out by Baruch Fischhoff, presented participants with a situation in which they were presented with a certain story with four possible outcomes, all of them plausible. Each group was told that one of the results was real and the others were fictitious. They were then asked to estimate the probabilities of occurrence of each of them.

Indeed, All groups estimated exactly the result that had been indicated to them as much more likely than the real one The conclusion is clear: when something has happened (or we believe it has happened, as in this study), it seems obvious to us that it happened in this specific way and not in any other way.

Factors involved in hindsight bias

We already know what retrospective bias consists of and what its development has been historically. Now We will delve deeper into the factors that are involved in the functioning of this mental shortcut These are the main ones.

1. Value and strength of the result

One of the factors that has to do with whether retrospective bias occurs with greater or lesser intensity is the value that the outcome of the events themselves has for the subject, as well as the strength with which it occurs. In that sense, if the result is negative for the person, they will tend to emit a stronger bias.

In other words, If an unfortunate event occurs for a given individual, he or she will be more likely to believe that it was obvious that it was going to happen that way specifically, if the event had occurred, it would have been positive for that same person. It is not even necessary for the result to affect this individual personally, it is enough for them to classify it as negative for this effect to occur.

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2. Expectability

The surprise factor, that is, how expected or not an event is, also influences when it comes to enhancing or minimizing retrospective bias. Surprise always causes the individual to search for congruence between past events and the final result. If this sense is generated between both, we will fall into retrospective bias and think that the event was more probable than it actually was.

But if we have difficulties establishing a direct relationship between the information we had and the end of the event, The opposite effect of retrospective bias will be created in us, since we will come to the conclusion that there was no way of knowing the result obtained

3. Personality traits

Obviously, hindsight bias, like so many other psychological phenomena, does not affect all people equally. There are certain personality traits that make a subject more or less vulnerable to falling into this cognition trap. There have been studies that show that individual differences affect the way people make inferences.

Of course, this directly affects the use of hindsight bias. There will be certain people who tend more to fall into this mechanism while others will do so to a lesser extent in a situation of similar conditions.

4. Age of the subject

Estimating whether age has been a factor affecting hindsight bias has been problematic for some time. This was because posing to children the same problems that were used with adult participants was difficult due to their complexity. But some researchers managed to develop analogous non-verbal tests, simply by using diffuse figures that corresponded to certain images.

When the participants knew in advance which object represented the blurred image, because the researchers had let them know, it seemed much more obvious to them that it represented said image than when they were asked the same question before being shown the final image.

Once the relevant studies have been carried out with young subjects, It was found that retrospective bias affected both children and adults although they cannot be evaluated in the same way, since due to the level of cognitive development it is necessary to adapt the tests to children.