Hindsight Bias

via Unnatural Acts that can improve your thinking

“The mind that makes up narratives about the past is a sense-making organ. When an unpredicted event occurs, we immediately adjust our view of the world to accommodate the surprise.”–Daniel Kahneman

Hindsight bias is the tendency to construct one’s memory after the fact (or interpret the meaning of something said in the past) according to currently known facts and one’s current beliefs. In this way, one appears to make the past consistent with the present and more predictive or predictable than it actually was. When a surprise event occurs and you say “I knew it all along,” you probably didn’t. Hindsight bias may be kicking in.

Hindsight bias accounts for the tendency of believers in prophecies and psychic predictions to retrofit events to past oracular claims, however vague or obscure (retroactive clairvoyance). For example, after the Challenger space shuttle disaster that killed seven U.S. astronauts on January 28, 1986, hindsight bias was used by followers of Nostradamus to claim that he had predicted it in the following verse:

D’humain troupeau neuf seront mis à part,
De jugement & conseil separés:
Leur sort sera divisé en départ,
Kappa, Thita, Lambda mors bannis égarés.

From the human flock nine will be sent away,
Separated from judgment and counsel:
Their fate will be sealed on departure
Kappa, Thita, Lambda the banished dead err (I.81).

Of course, to make the obscene retrodiction complete, Nostradamus’s minions would have to speculate that teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe was pregnant with twins to make nine the total in the “flock.” The belief that one can predict the future is often due to little more than the power of hindsight bias.

Hindsight bias also seems to account for the tendency of many people to think they can explain events that weren’t predicted after the events have happened. It is unacceptable to many people to think that major events like a respected Wall Street investment manager running a Ponzi scheme that cost people perhaps as much as $50 billion wasn’t predictable. If only somebody had paid attention to this and that detail, Bernard Madoff could never have pulled it off. What is true is that a major impact event like this can be easily explained after the fact. The explanations may satisfy people and lead them to believe that they now understand how such an event happened, but there is no way to know whether collecting many facts and using them to explain what occurred will help prevent a similar event from happening in the future.

Why do we engage in hindsight bias? There are several reasons.

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