I Knew It All Along! Really?—Hindsight Bias {Bias Day 11}

11 Hindsight Bias_fb

What is hindsight bias?

Hindsight bias is when we look back and say, “I knew this was going to happen!” even though we didn’t know. It’s sometimes even labeled the “I-knew-it-all-along” effect.

It’s thinking that past events are more predictable than they really are.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains it like this:

“The core of the illusion is that we believe we understand the past, which implies that the future also should be knowable, but in fact we understand the past less than we believe we do.”

Here’s an example of hindsight bias.

Say your friend and their spouse break up. You think: looking back, I saw this coming.

Or Monday morning after the Super Bowl, you say you had a feeling that Kansas City was going to lose (even though you didn’t have that feeling prior to the game).

Or this: a jury hears the case of a low-risk surgery that ended in an unpredictable death. Because they know how the story ends (the patient dies), their hindsight bias says the doctor should have known better and done things differently.

Especially when the outcome is negative, we’re more likely to have hindsight bias. Per Kahneman, the pattern is this: the worse the consequence, the greater the hindsight bias.

Why does hindsight bias happen?

Why do we think things are more predictable than they really are?

One reason is because we want life to make sense. We want the world to be predictable. It’s comforting. Our brains are always working to complete a story.

When the unexpected occurs, our minds immediately begin reframing our view of the world to make room for the surprise.

In the Super Bowl example, it’s not that you’re lying about your your intuition. It’s that you’re misremembering your earlier prediction. After the win, your brain reconstructed your past state of mind, and inserted the fact that Tom Brady is an unstoppable quarterback for Tampa Bay, so of course Kansas City would lose.

Also, we generally pay more attention to negative outcomes than positive outcomes, so our hindsight bias distorts our memories even more after a loss than a win.

Is hindsight bias bad?

As with any of the biases, hindsight bias is dangerous because it keeps us from seeing clearly. It prevents us from making correct evaluations.

Hindsight bias can easily lead to overconfidence. If we think we have correctly predicted the past, we’re more apt to make unrealistic predictions about the future, such as in the stock market or in an unhealthy relationship.

Hindsight bias also can hinder us from taking responsibility for and learning from our mistakes. It oversimplifies the past. It causes us to look for a single explanation about an event, instead of examining the many factors of our own behavior that could have caused the outcome.

How can we counter hindsight bias?

We can counter it by considering what could have happened, but didn’t. Give yourself a more balanced view of potential outcomes. Remind yourself the past (and present and future) is complex.

We also can remind ourselves we really can’t predict the future. We can look at data and facts to help make future decisions, but we can’t know for sure what will happen.

Another solutions is to record our thoughts *before* an event. Then look back *after* the event to see if we’re misremembering our earlier predictions. Our selective memories tend to err on the positive side.

How did Jesus handle hindsight bias?

Jesus was assumed to see clearly, thus having no hindsight bias. But his followers didn’t and couldn’t always see clearly. 

Looking back at how the Hebrew people complained in their wilderness wanderings, we think *we* wouldn’t have complained so much. When the Israelites rebelled again and again, we say we knew that was coming. Even when we read of Peter saying he would never deny Christ, we shake our heads and say we could have predicted he would.

Life is clearer looking back than looking ahead. We can look back at the mistakes others have made and say they were predictable, not realizing that we are just as susceptible to them ourselves.

Jesus could have looked at Peter after Peter’s denials and said, “I told you so.” But he didn’t. Instead he offered him bread and fish and forgiveness.

That’s a good model for how we might handle past mistakes as well. Instead of “I knew you were going to mess up,” offer grace for today and strength for tomorrow.

When’s the last time you said, “I knew it all along“? Share in the comments.

You are on Day 11 of the series: “How to Uncover Hidden Biases.”

Uncover Hidden Biases

Previous: Community Bias {Bias Day 10}
“When You See Differently Than Your Group” 

Next: Bias and Religion {Bias Day 12}
“Is Questioning Your Religion Bad? Or Is It Healthy?”

7 thoughts on “I Knew It All Along! Really?—Hindsight Bias {Bias Day 11}

  1. Michele Morin

    It seems to me that grace stands in the way of so many tendencies toward wrong thinking. May we trust for all the grace we need to expect good and then to see it in the rear view mirror, even when it’s not the exact GOOD we were looking for.

  2. Lynn

    We do want to make life make sense, and also I can have a ‘sense of justice’ that can lead to bias thinking. If I believe myself or someone didn’t make the right choice then ” I knew that would happen because….” can kick in! Sometimes that might be true due to consequences, however “a more balanced view of potential outcomes” is wise. Thankful daily for God’s grace.

  3. Theresa Boedeker

    We are prone to trying to make sense of what happened so we can replicate it or keep it from happening again. But it does get us in trouble, because it gives us the false sense we have more control than we do and we think we can now control the future. I am so glad Jesus doesn’t have the “I told you so habit,” or I would have heard it numerous times.

  4. Trudy

    Thank you so much for this insightful series, Lisa. What really struck me here is how Jesus never says “I told you so” even though He did know, unlike us. He just keeps offering His grace and forgiveness. Thank you for this encouraging reminder! Love and blessings to you, my friend!

  5. Richella J Parham

    I really appreciate this thoughtful post, and for this whole series. I am so glad that you make the point that Jesus doesn’t say “I told you so!” I think sometimes we project our own proclivities onto God, so we need to be reminded of the truth.

    I wrote a chapter about using hindsight in my book (that is, considering and healing from the past), and I agree there with what you say: hindsight isn’t 20/20.

    Thanks so much for joining the Grace at Home party at Imparting Grace. I’m featuring you this week!

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