What is hindsight bias? How to recognize it and why it matters
- Hindsight bias is a thought pattern that convinces you that you've known a certain outcome all along.
- This can make processing trauma difficult, because of a belief that it could have been prevented.
If you've ever heard the cliche "hindsight is 20/20," then you're familiar with hindsight bias.
Hindsight bias — or the "knew it all along" phenomenon — is a social psychology term for people's tendency to believe that they could have predicted the outcome of an event after it has already occurred, explains Dr. Stephanie Freitag, licensed staff psychologist at Westchester CAPS and adjunct professor at Emory School of Medicine.
It's important to recognize hindsight bias because it can distort our view of reality and impair decision-making. It can be an obstacle in relationships, at work, and in healing from trauma and mental health related issues.
Here's why it matters, and how to prevent it from negatively affecting your life.
What is hindsight bias?
Hindsight bias occurs when you overestimate your ability to judge the outcome of a situation that already happened.
"This is a type of distorted thinking and is one of the common cognitive biases that a person can have," explains Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, a psychiatrist with a private practice.
According to Gonzalez-Berrios, Hindsight bias can:
- Make you believe that you should have known what would happen
- Make you believe the problem you predicted beforehand was probable
"After the event, they will feel that their prediction was absolutely correct," Gonzalez-Berrios says.
Examples of hindsight bias
Danielle McGraw — a licensed clinical psychologist whose work focuses on unhelpful thinking patterns — offers some examples of what hindsight bias can look like in everyday situations:
- Not investing in a stock and when the stock increases thinking, "I knew it was going to go up! I should have bought shares."
- When a relationship ends due to a partner's infidelity or other indiscretion, people often say, "I told you they were bad news" or "I told you the relationship wouldn't work out."
- After watching a play in the big game, it's playing couch quarterback: "They should have known the other team would make that play! It was so obvious."
And she offers additional examples of hindsight bias that can be especially damaging in the context of trauma:
- "If I hadn't had so much to drink, I would not have gotten sexually assaulted."
- "If I hadn't trusted this person, I wouldn't have gotten hurt."
- "If I hadn't visited my mother, she wouldn't have gotten sick and died."
- "As a combat veteran, if I hadn't stormed that building, then the women and children wouldn't have died."
"This is unhelpful because if they had really known for sure what their outcome would be, they would have made different decisions," McGraw explains.
"In the present moment, we have 100 percent of the information on how the situation will turn out. When we make the decisions in those moments, we have far less information [available] and make the best decision with the information we have at the time."
How to recognize and overcome hindsight bias
Freitag offers the following tips for what steps to take once you recognize your own hindsight bias:
- Engage in self-reflection, like journaling or talking with a therapist
- Try to meet biased thoughts with compassion, not judgment
- This helps you to acknowledge that you have bias, as everyone does, without resenting yourself for it
- Talk to others, read, or use online resources to educate yourself on different modes of thinking
- Next time you find yourself jumping to a conclusion in the future, recognize that it may be colored by bias — step back and take an intentional pause before reacting.
- Keep a log examining your thoughts compared with the real-world data.
- Find people who can hold you accountable: like your friends, partner, or family.
"Many of our thoughts are not based on facts, so make sure you examine if you had facts or feelings guiding your conclusion in hindsight," says Dr. Meghan Marcum, chief psychologist at AMFM Healthcare.
Biases, including hindsight bias, lead people to make errors in work and in relationships. Other common cognitive biases include:
- Confirmation bias: when you focus on data that matches what you already believe to be true and deemphasize the rest
- Implicit bias (unconscious stereotypes that seep into daily life).
How past traumas are viewed through hindsight bias
Hindsight bias is often something that trauma victims experience as a way to understand the traumatic event.
For example, a victim of sexual assault might think they had a way to anticipate or stop the event from happening by doing something different — like drinking less, wearing something different, or keeping different company.
In this way, hindsight bias can function in an effort to make sense of past traumatic or uncomfortable events — even if it means putting the blame on someone who doesn't deserve it, like yourself.
"It's also a protection mechanism to help understand why something happened so we can keep ourselves safe in the future in similar situations," says McGraw.
But what our brains intend as a protective mechanism can in fact lead to harmful psychological patterns — especially after a trauma. "For example, 'I am no longer going to trust anyone because they hurt me.'"
This is also often pointed inward: "survivors tend to blame themselves," Freitag says. "They tend to tell themselves that they should have seen abuse coming and they overestimate the control they had in the moment after the fact."
Hindsight bias is particularly common in survivors of child abuse or survivors of sexual trauma. "It's because in those situations, survivors are usually abused by people close to them, typically family members," she says. "And they overestimate their ability to have confronted the abuse when in reality, it is really, really difficult."
Importantly, this bias can hinder healing from the traumatic event and can contribute to the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as it often creates a so-called stuck point.
"It may lead to self-blame when in reality we need self-compassion."
How hindsight bias affects future decision making
Not only does hindsight bias alter how you view past decisions, it also can lead to bad decision making in the future.
"If we only rely on what we already know or believe, we are missing out on a lot of essential information,"says Freitag.
For instance, research shows that more biased investment bankers tended to have lower financial performance across locations and experiences.
Hindsight bias can also lower self-esteem by leading you to blame yourself for not making a better decision. This can trigger a harsh inner dialog that results in intense stress. It can also impact our relationships with others by causing external conflict surrounding misplaced blame and shame.
Freitag warns that any type of person can be predisposed to this type of potentially dangerous bias regardless of their intelligence or profession.
"This is a bias that is fundamental to human nature," she says. "It has more to do with the fact that humans tend to overestimate their ability to control most of which is out of their control in life."
And this bias may steer you away from information that would contradict what you already think is going to happen.
Hindsight bias is one of the various cognitive biases you may or may not even know you have when you make decisions every day.
It leads you to think you could or should have known the result of an event after it happens, which can lead you to blame yourself, impacting your mental health, and creating obstacles to healing from trauma.
Recognizing your own hindsight biases can help you heal, reduce feelings of shame and blame, and make future choices aligned with objective realities.
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