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Hindsight is not such a wonderful thing after all say scientists

Hindsight is supposed to give us 20:20 vision but scientists have found it distorts our memories and there is not much we can do about it.

Professor Nick Chater reveals in The Human Zoo on BBC Radio 4 this week how our understanding of the past is twisted by the 'hindsight bias' – a tendency to look back on events as though we knew they were going to happen, even if they seemed unfathomable at the time.

“It makes us misunderstand the past and stops us learning properly from history,” said Professor Chater, of Warwick Business School. “Take the troubles with the euro zone. Were they predictable or not? If we consider arguments suggesting a single currency will be unsustainable, we tend to think these are convincing; and we think that arguments in the opposite direction are unconvincing.

“But whether an argument is convincing or not should be independent of whether its conclusion happens to be true. If arguments against the euro zone are really more convincing, then we all should have known that the euro zone would have economic problems. But of course, we didn’t!.

“Hindsight bias raises a question about how we think about history. Looking back into the past, we often think we can understand how things really were - like what caused the 2008 financial crisis, the collapse of communism, or the first world war - because we know how things turned out. But now we know about hindsight bias we should be suspicious of this 'feeling of understanding'. The idea we can look back on history and understand it should be viewed with scepticism."

Psychologists have found that hindsight bias is made up of three elements: memory distortion, which is when you forget what you thought before and can’t look back without it being contaminated by your present opinions (eg “I remember how bad things seemed when I visited communist Poland”); that people believe in the inevitability of events (eg “communism was bound to collapse sooner or later”), and third foreseeability, the extent to which you think you can foresee things (“I always knew communism wouldn’t last forever”).

Professor Chater says a study in the US saw researchers describe an obscure battle in history, and ask two groups of people who was most likely to win based on that information. However, one group already knew who actually won. One group said it couldn’t tell, and had no idea who would win. The other group, that already knew, said it was obvious from the start who would win. Yet the two groups had exactly the same information, except for this one fact: how it turned out.

“Another study asked people to predict the outcome of an election, and then asked them to remember these predictions after it,” said Professor Chater. “People remember them being much closer to the outcome than they actually were. There is a reconstruction process going on where they actually take the outcome into account.

“Even if you offer people rewards, like money, studies have found people still can’t produce the correct memory. And explaining hindsight bias and asking people to avoid it doesn’t help much either.

“Hindsight bias can cause serious problems. For example, we may blame people for taking quite reasonable risks, because, when if something does go wrong, we feel that this was inevitable – they should have known. This can contribute to a culture of blame that can lead to excessive risk-aversion - if we don’t take risks, we are unlikely to learn how to do things better, which in business, in government, or in daily life is crucial.”  

To listen to The Human Zoo click here.

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