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Did you really know it all along??

Your sibling’s face…

“I KNEW IT!!!!!” your sibling gleefully exclaims after the clock hits 0:00 and your favorite team has just lost to your least favorite team. You start thinking, how could they possibly know that team was going to win? The teams had similar records with equally talented players and you are left glumly wishing you hadn’t bet $10 on the game. This kind of scenario happens all the time and is pretty hard to avoid.  For instance, you may be amazed that your friend who walks carelessly across the ice is surprised when she falls. Of course she was going to fall! The key pattern in these instances is that the feelings of frustration or foreknowledge occur after the event. Often times, we believe that we knew something would happen because we assess the situation after it occurs and reflect upon it with information we did not previously have. This common phenomenon is known as the hindsight bias.

We actually do need research

Although memory is something we are almost completely reliant on, it can be faulty and misleading. Daniel Schacter’s book, “The Seven Sins of Memory” dives into the kinds of memory failures that permeate our everyday lives. More specifically, he talks about bias as being one of those seven sins. Within the bias category, hindsight bias is mentioned and described as the cognitive process that occurs when knowledge of an event is misattributed and incorporated into our memory of the event. Therefore, it is hard to avoid this bias because our memory is unstable and it is difficult to remember what it was like not to know something. This instability is due to the reconstructive nature of our memory which means that our expectations and other information we have learned (most importantly after the fact), lead us to recreate our memories and believe (from a hindsight bias standpoint) that we already knew information at a time when in actuality we didn’t. Our memory isn’t perfect and so we fill in the blanks to rationalize and provide meaning.

Hindsight is 20/20, but your chance was 50/50

One study in particular provides an example of the challenges of remembering what it was like not to know something. Participants in this study either acted as an observer or as an object “recognizer” (Bernstein et al, 2004). First, the observer would have to identify different objects that were somewhat visible and somewhat blurred out. Then, they would have to guess how fast their peer, the object recognizer, would guess those same objects. There were also baseline objects that the observer did not know. The researchers found that when the observer knew the objects, they overestimated their peer’s ability to guess the object. So, when questioning your decision to bet your sibling on that game and feeling silly for doing so, don’t be so hard on yourself because your chance was 50/50 and maybe you would’ve walked off $10 richer. On the other hand, you should also be gentler on your friend because even though you think they were being careless on the ice, your evaluation of what they knew about that situation was overestimated.

It is easier to figure out what’s going on after it has happened

So far, the examples I have given you to consider seem a bit silly, but unfortunately, hindsight bias can be harmful in a certain way. Some of the dangers of hindsight bias include false confidence and poor assessment of peers or coworkers. An example of false confidence that can derive from hindsight bias is when a doctor gives a correct diagnosis that was relatively easy. The next time they are faced with a diagnosis, their memory of the ease to which they came to the right decision may give them false confidence in the next diagnosis where they need to be more cautious (Bradfield and Wells, 2005). In a similar fashion, overconfidence can also lead to poor performance in other aspects of life like taking exams and giving presentations. In addition, Hal Arkes, a professor from Ohio State University wrote about a clinicopathologic conference for lower ranking medical professionals who are given a case and a required to diagnose it and present their thought process in front of a large group of their peers. The cases they are given are very hard and the presenters usually get it wrong. The goal of the conference is to provide an example of the challenges of being a doctor and what steps you should take when coming to an important decision. On the other hand, Arkes’ observations provide evidence suggesting that the peers can negatively judge the presenter’s process because after seeing the correct diagnosis, they believe that the decision of the presenter should have been much easier than it was. Since these judgments were made after learning the correct diagnosis, they are not reliable because they were influenced by hindsight bias. The peer observers might think, my peer is not as qualified as I am to be in this field. This line of thinking can be harmful for the presenter’s reputation and understate their qualifications. Imagine if the presenter was the only one given the correct diagnosis and their peers had to think about the presentation for a couple of days. Maybe then without having the correct diagnosis, it would have been easier for the peers to understand the difficulty of coming to a diagnosis and hindsight bias wouldn’t have affected their judgments immediately after the presentation.

In each example offered, hindsight bias is the driving factor in in making judgments about ourselves and others after an event has occurred. Of course, we cannot predict the future, but it is hard to remember our inability to do so once the information has been reconstructed into our memories. Once we are conscious of hindsight bias, we can then work mitigate the effects of it. In hindsight, it is important to be conscious of the hindsight bias so that we can step back and approach our own judgements with a little more caution.


Arkes, H.R. (2013). The consequences of the hindsight bias in medical decision making. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(5), 356-360. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721413489988

Bernstein, D. M., Atance, C., Loftus, G.R., & Meltzoff, A. (2004). We saw it all along: Visual hindsight bias in children and adults. Psychological Science 15(4), 264-267. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2004.00663.x

Bradfield, A., & Wells, G.L. (2005). Not the same old hindsight bias: Outcome information distorts a broad range of retrospective judgments. Memory & Cognition, 33(1), 120-130. Doi: https://dx.doi.org/10.3758/BF03195302

Schacter, D.L. (2001). The seven sins of memory: How the mind forgets and remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Wu, D. A., Shimojo, S., Wang, A. W., & Camerer, C.F. (2012). Shared visual attention reduces hindsight bias. Psychological Science, 23(12), 1524-1533. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612447817



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