Home > Metacognition > Who Needs a Crystal Ball to See the Future When Hindsight Bias Makes You Feel as if You Knew it All Along

Who Needs a Crystal Ball to See the Future When Hindsight Bias Makes You Feel as if You Knew it All Along

“I just can’t stand it anymore!” For the last two weeks, this has been Katie’s way of announcing to her mother that she is home from school. Why is Katie so upset? I’ll give you a hint- it’s March of her senior year and she is waiting on something…

You’re probably thinking, oh college decisions! That must be what she is waiting for.

Good guess, but this is something much more nerve-wracking.

She’s waiting for her crush to ask her to the senior prom.

“What happened today, sweetheart?,” her mom asked. “Ok, so it was during lunch and I was standing in front of Drew in the sandwich line. I totally saw him checking me out, so I thought, ‘might as well flash a smile his way’, so I smiled AND said hi to him. And you know what he did back? NOTHING. He pretended like I didn’t exist! Can you believe him?!”

“Well, maybe he didn’t see you Katie. I wouldn’t worry about it; I’ve seen the way he looks at you. Drew clearly likes you.” Katie groaned. “Sorry mom, but I think you’re wrong on this one. I’m just going to accept the fact that he NEVER is going to ask me out.”

“Just wait it out Katie; you always try to control the situation, but sometimes matters like this need time to work themselves out.” Katie rolled her eyes. “No, I think I’m just destined to live alone my whole life with only cats to keep me company. The sooner I accept reality the better.”

*One Week Later, Katie’s on the phone while walking into the house*

“Brittany, I know, what can I say, it was only a matter of time before he was going to ask me. Have you noticed the way he looks at me? I’ve known he was going to ask me the whole time.”

Katie may feel as if she knew it all along but she’s not fooling us…

“Katie, is that you? Did I just hear you say Drew finally asked you to the prom? This is so exciting! I told you not to worry.”

“Brittany, give me a second my mom is talking to me. What do you mean, worry? I’ve known he was going to ask me all along.”

*Katie leaves the room*

“Knew it all along huh?” Katie’s mom picked up an advertisement addressed to Katie from the counter. “I guess she won’t be needing this cat poster of the month subscription anymore”.

Like Katie’s mom, you may be confused as to why Katie suddenly feels as if she knew Drew was going to ask her all along when it’s evident she didn’t.

One possible explanation is hindsight bias.

Hindsight bias is the tendency for individuals to rely on new knowledge when recalling their initial predictions of an event. There are three distinct aspects which contribute to this false belief- memory distortions, inevitability, and predictability (Roese & Vohs, 2012). First, individuals misremember their earlier opinion of an event such as Katie telling Brittany “I’ve known he was going to ask me the whole time.” What causes people to misremember? One implicating factor is how we retrieve memories. Although many people believe memories are encoded (i.e., processed) and stored with incredible accuracy and then retrieved similar to how a video can be played back, the retrieval of memories is a reconstructive process. During retrieval, multiple memories (such as visual, auditory, tactile, etc.) relating to the event are simultaneously recombined to form a reconstructed memory of the particular situation (Roediger & DeSoto, 2015). Therefore, when we learn new things, we combine this information with our prior knowledge to generate a comprehensive memory of the entire situation, resulting in false memories of when we initially learned the information. Additionally, because humans are naturally inclined to prefer consistency, we selectively recall information that is consistent with our new knowledge to establish meaning and continuity in our lives.

The second level of hindsight bias is inevitability, or the belief that an event had to happen. This aspect is demonstrated when Katie remarks “it was only a matter of time before he was going to ask me”, suggesting that there was no other alternative outcome. Inevitability occurs because we often equate things that come to mind more easily as more common, however this is not always the case; for example, one study shows that doctors that have diagnosed two cases of a serious disease are likely to see it in the next patient if they have similar symptoms because of how easy the serious disease is to recall (Klein, 2005). Finally, the last aspect of hindsight bias relates to predictability, or how an individually personally believes they foresaw the outcome of an event. This aspect is illustrated by Katie stating that she was the one who knew it along, despite her mother originally being the one to tell her that Drew clearly likes her. This feeling of predictability additionally relates to another cognitive bias known as the illusion of validity, or the tendency for individuals to be overconfident in making predictions given a set of data. The illusion of validity is especially detrimental in risky decision making situations like playing roulette or investing in the stock market.

So, does hindsight bias impact everyone?

“I knew they would comeback the whole time”~ every Patriots fan after Superbowl LI

Although research shows that hindsight bias occurs in virtually all cultures around the globe (Pohl, Bender, & Lachmann, 2002), a recent 2014 study suggests that individual differences in working memory capacity (i.e., how much information one can remember in their immediate conscious memory) and inhibitory control influence one’s susceptibility of engaging in hindsight bias (Coolin, Erdfelder, Bernstein, Thornton, & Thornton, 2014). In this experiment, 60 healthy senior citizens and 62 college students participated in a memory judgment hindsight bias task which consisted of two parts. First, participants had to answer 54 almanac questions such as “What year did the Hundred Years’ War begin?” or “How many muscles does the human body have?”. Participants in the experimental group were told they would be learning the correct answer to half of the questions later on, whereas the remaining participants were not told anything. Once they finished the questionnaire, participants completed the Stroop Test to measure their inhibition (i.e., ability to override unnecessary information) and a Backward-Digit span test to determine working memory capabilities. The Stroop Task is one of the most famous experiments in cognitive psychology; it requires individuals to perceive a stimulus (such as the word ball or a nonword like glip) and state what color the stimulus is presented in. Results of the Stroop Task suggest that when a stimulus has conflicting meaning-based and perceptual characteristics (such as the word red presented in red), it is harder for participants to inhibit, or override, the automatic (i.e., quick, unconscious) response of reading. Regarding the working memory task, participants were instructed to recall a sequence of digits in the reverse order that was presented to them. Finally, the last part of the experiment asked participants to recall their original answers to the questionnaire. Coolin et al. concluded that better inhibitory control and higher working memory capacity were associated with higher recollection ability (recalling more original judgments) in the presence of outcome knowledge (being told that they would learn the correct answers), and that better inhibitory control was associated with less reconstruction bias (Coolin, Erdfelder, Bernstein, Thornton, & Thornton, 2014). Therefore, these findings suggest that Katie’s own working memory capacity and inhibitory control could have both influenced how she recalled her original judgment of Drew asking her to the prom.

Additionally, another study focusing on how personality traits influence hindsight bias suggests that individuals who have a stronger need for control and engage in more favorable self-presentation (i.e., expending a lot of effort to ensure they are well received by others and society) are more likely to experience hindsight bias. Researchers suggest that this is because individuals with these character traits often strive to avoid inconsistencies; those with a high need to control prefer events and situations to have meaning and be predictable, whereas those who perform favorable self-presentation want others to view them in the same positive manner (Musch, 2010). As Katie’s mother remarked that Katie always tries to control the situation, Katie’s need for control, in addition to potential deficits in working-memory and inhibition, may also make her more susceptible to hindsight bias.

You may be wondering, so why is this important? Why should we care about misremembering trivial information like the likelihood of Drew asking Katie to the prom?

Although it may seem harmless in Katie’s situation, hindsight bias can be dangerous if left unchecked. Because hindsight bias makes people feel as if the outcome of an event was inevitable, individuals engaging in hindsight bias often do not learn from their mistakes; because they believe an event was always going to happen in that specific way, there is no motivation for them to stop and understand the why behind the outcome (Roese and Vohs, 2012). Additionally, because hindsight bias involves personally feeling as if one accurately predicted an outcome, frequently engaging in hindsight bias results in low metacognition (i.e., the ability to think about one’s own thinking). Being overconfident in one’s abilities can have negative effects in a variety of domains, ranging from schoolwork to financial decision making to personal relationships.

In conclusion, although Katie in retrospect made it seem as if Drew was bound to always ask her, it is important to remember that events are NEVER inevitable; there are always multiple possibilities regarding how a situation could end up. Therefore, in order to reduce hindsight bias, learn from our mistakes, and decrease feelings of overconfidence, it is important to contemplate possible alternatives to an event’s outcome.

Just think, if Katie thought realistically about the possibility of Drew asking her out beforehand, she would’ve saved the $32.95 she spent on her yearly subscription to the “Cat Poster of The Month” club.




Coolin, A., Erdfelder, E., Bernstein, D.M., Thornton, A.E., & Thornton, W.L. (2014). Explaining individual differences in cognitive processes underlying hindsight bias. Psychonomic Bullet & Review, 22, 1-22, doi: 10.3758/s13423-014-0691-5

Klein, J.G. (2005). Five pitfalls in decisions about diagnosis and prescribing. BMJ, 330, 781-783, doi: 10.1136/bmj.330.7494.781

Musch, J. (2010). Personality differences in hindsight bias. Memory, 11, 473-489, doi: 10.1080/09658210244000540

Pohl, R.F., Bender, M., & Lachmann, G. (2002). Hindsight Bias Around the World. Experimental Psychology, 49, 270-282, doi: 10.1026//1618-3169.49.4.270

Roediger, H. L. & DeSoto, K. A. (2015). Psychology of reconstructive memory. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences20, 50-55, doi: 10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.51016-2

Roese, N.J., & Vohs, K.D. (2012). Hindsight Bias. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 411-426, doi: 10.1177/1745691612454303

  1. December 3rd, 2019 at 23:07 | #1

    Hi, this was a fun post to read! It was interesting to read about how people hold beliefs that events were inevitable in order to feel that they had more control over the situation. I actually wrote about rosy retrospection, which is related to the hindsight bias because it is another phenomenon in which people lack metacognition over beliefs about events. Due to rosy retrospection, people have a more positive view of past experiences because they have more control over how they view the event rather than the amount of control they had over the event while it was occurring. Similarly to hindsight bias, rosy retrospection may occur in order for people to create consistencies about their present identity.

You must be logged in to post a comment.