Posted by: Anne E. Stuart | February 1, 2013

Hindsight Bias: The “I knew it all along” phenomenon

One of the courses I am teaching this semester is Social Psychology. At the beginning of last week, I was covering the introductory material, including the hindsight bias. The hindsight bias is the tendency to exaggerate our ability to have known how an event was going to play out – after the event has occured. In other words, when we look back after something has happened, we feel very certain we “knew all along” that events would go as they did. The bias is in the fact that we really don’t have such accurate foresight. It only seems accurate after the fact.

The hindsight bias comes into play in a lot of areas of our lives – from personal to political.

I was prompted to choose the hindsight bias as my first post this semester after listening to NPR on the way home from work last Wednesday. They were reporting on Hillary Clinton’s testimony regarding the September 11, 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Lybia. I particularly noted Clinton’s response to Senator Ron Johnson, in saying “What difference, at this point, does it make?” I was impressed because, in that moment, she diffused some of the blame going on due to hindsight bias.

I’m not entirely sure of what different people knew or didn’t know about plans for attacks in Benghazi. What I do know is that everything seems so much clearer now, because we know it. Of course we can easily connect the dots between different slips of information. At the time leading up to the attacks, those slips of information were likely not as clear.

An interesting thing about the hindsight bias is that we tend to engage it more after negative events than positive events. We blame politicians for poor decisions and fail to praise them for good decisions. We beat ourselves up about relationships gone wrong.

So, next time, don’t be so quick to conclude you knew it all along. Pause and think about whether you (or someone else) really knew how events would turn out. Also, take it easy on yourself and others if those events were negative.

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