Looking at cognitive biases can be a sticky business because it's a term used in psychology, but the tricks our brain can play on us can overlap with other concepts and errors. Geeks coined the term in the 1970s, but we see elements of the things in our daily lives. The same kinds of errors overlap with logical fallacies to which these biases in thought contribute. I see the “weapons of influence” used in sales as a blending of both, just as thought reform does (according to those other geeks who coined those terms).
So in the interest of understanding ourselves, the world around us, and how we might safely fit into it, lets dive right into a lighter one first.
I Knew It Was Going to Happen!
I say this one all the time – perhaps daily. The last time that I played backgammon with my husband, I made a somewhat risky move, anticipating that if he rolled a certain set of numbers, I would suffer the consequences. I made a calculated risk, but I didn't have any premonition at all about what the dice would yield. I wisely anticipated the possibilities that might result, and I feared that particular one.
The hindsight bias falls into two types: One that is inevitable and one that is foreseeable. We really don't know the time and place of an event, but we tell ourselves that we “had a hunch” about the outcome. The hindsight bias of inevitability is another trick we play. Two blocks away from the petrol station, your tank runs empty and your car shuts down. “I knew this would happen.” That was not a premonition. Running your vehicle on insufficient fuel was inevitable. It's just somewhat poetic that you ran out within sight of the pump.
We tend to do that with test questions, too. We feel like we might know an answer on a quiz show, but if we really knew it, we would not have hesitated to mention it.
We don't like to think of ourselves as inept, so when we don't hit the mark perfectly on something or we haven't been attentive to take of something in advance, we soften the blow to our ego with hindsight bias. Daniel Amen might classify this as one of his Automatic Negative Thoughts of predicting the future, especially when the outcomes that meet us aren't so pleasant.
The things that really trouble us and knock us off balance are those that we didn't know, didn't anticipate, and didn't believe would happen.
How to Harness Hindsight Bias
If we can recognize when we use the hindsight bias, we can ask ourselves what it is about ourselves or the situation that caused us to employ it. I might be ashamed to admit my carelessness about my car and my forgetfulness about putting fuel in my car when I run out of gas. Perhaps I didn't have enough money in reserve to pay for it?
Beneath that, there might be an underlying belief about the world that is untrue, too. One example of that might be, “I'm afraid that I'm powerless.” Another could be, “I never get a break.” Neither is true, but because we get focused on our pain and our limitations, we tend to underestimate our situation objectively.
Concerning my backgammon move, I must admit that I still struggle a great deal with perfectionism. I like to play board games with my husband because I feel so safe with him whether I win or lose, but there is a part of me that didn't learn how to safely take initiative without fear, either. A part of my ego and my own locus of control is still a bit too dependent on outcomes, frankly. But I am aware of it and improve every time I see the way this fear pricks my heart and results in some behavior or thought that seems to nurse my ego.
And now, I will give myself encouragement for having the honesty to admit that and write about it as an example. Perhaps six months ago, I don't think that I had the fortitude to write about this so openly.
Ooops! There it is! Another hindsight bias!
See how we built it into our thoughts and how easy it is for us to trick ourselves? I don't know one way or the other if I would have written such a thing because it wasn't on my mind. What is true? I feel encouraged about my progress. People who don't want to grow never ask themselves about how they measure up against a standard. I do know that I want to grow and thus encourage others! :)
For further reading until the next post:
- One of the $3 Kindle books about Cognitive Bias at Amazon.com
- Steve Martin's The Heresy of Mind Control
- Gilovich, Griffin & Kahneman's Heuristics and Biases
- Robert Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
- Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery
- Bessel Van der Kolk's The Body Keeps Score
Past Your Past