It’s Sunday morning, and you and your family are preparing to head out for a day at the beach. The sun is bright and warm, but as you place the last of your beach items into the car, you notice a lone cloud. “I bet it’s going to be cloudy at the beach,” you think, even though you’ve checked the weather report several times, and it showed nothing but clear skies. When you arrive at the beach to misty morning fog, you think, “I just knew it.”
But did you really? This is an example of a psychological phenomenon known as hindsight bias. While this example is relatively innocuous, this funny way of placing more stock in our abilities to predict, well, anything can be decidedly dangerous, Especially when we use it in instances of major decision-making.
Outside of the realm of hard facts and figures, there is no real way for us to predict successes or failures with any level of accuracy. When we employ something like hindsight bias, we’re not only not learning from our past mistakes; we’re not even allowing them to exist. Hindsight bias is a tricky way our ego tries to tell us that we were in control when we simply weren’t. As a result, we bypass a real opportunity for growth and change.
Luckily, hindsight bias has been studied across decades, and psychology has found a handful of ways to help us combat this mind trap. It begins by understanding the three prominent ways that hindsight bias arises. When we can recognize it, we can catch ourselves before we start rewriting history.
Psychological scientists Neal Roese at Northwestern University and Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota break hindsight bias down into three types:
Memory Distortion or “I said it would happen.”
You submit a poem to a prominent poetry journal, and you are feeling doubtful about your chances of getting published. When the letter arrives saying your poem has been accepted, you confidently assert that you knew it would happen. When in reality, you didn’t. You side-step your initial vulnerability and cover it up with an overblown experience of confidence, known as ego.
Inevitability or “It had to happen.”
You have spent five years in a promising relationship that started challenging you to grow. When you break up with this person, instead of acknowledging how you could have changed to keep the relationship, you state that “it would have ended anyway.” You ignore the difficult yet essential lessons the relationship was bringing you in favor of staying comfortable.
Foreseeability or “I knew it would happen.”
You’re boarding a flight and are feeling anxious because you have an unexpressed fear of flying. You try to compose yourself throughout the flight, but once you hit a patch of turbulence, you say to yourself, “I just knew this would happen” when in reality, you didn’t know anything. Instead, you use this form of hindsight bias to cement your fear as fact—never confronting it. You choose to believe that your fear is actually a supernatural ability that you have to predict the future when it just isn’t.
The ego wants to feel in control; the ego wants to know everything and wants everything to make sense. The truth is, it doesn’t. When we find ourselves falling into one of the three types of bias, it’s a hint that our ego is running the show. The only way to combat this is to challenge these skewed thoughts.
Using the examples above, challenging our hindsight bias would look like this:
When your poem gets accepted, you share how humbled you are because you felt so unsure of yourself. How will this change your behavior moving forward? You will put the same amount of time and effort you did on your next piece, you’ll identify what worked and what didn’t, and you’ll grow as a writer.
When your relationship ends, instead of saying it was just “meant to end,” you’ll examine what you could have done better. You’ll explore why you had such a difficult time, what the relationship was trying to teach you, and you will allow the feelings of disappointment and grief to arise so they can be healed. The next time you’re in a relationship, you’ll be able to show up even more authentically.
When you feel your fear of flying, you can acknowledge that it is illogical, you can deal with your fear instead of deciding that it can predict the future. From here, you can work to eradicate your fear instead of feeding it.
Our sole purpose in this life is to grow and transform, but this requires discomfort and change—two things our ego works to minimize at all costs. When we move in the direction of our discomfort and change, we bring about enormous transformation for ourselves even though it might not feel that way at the time.
When you catch yourself in the momentary experience of hindsight bias, look at what is true. Place your certainty in the Creator, in the process of your life, instead of placing it in your ego.
When have you used hindsight bias to move around something uncomfortable or difficult? What is true instead?