Hindsight Bias, Everyone knew this would happen.

Another remarkable aspect of cognitive faculties is their ability to convince us that we are certain of something that in reality was (or may still be) incredibly uncertain. This phenomenal effect is so convincing that in many cases we are absolutely positively sure that it isn’t happening. We just know that what we think now isn’t an illusion or manipulated by outside sources, we tend to forget that if our brain is tricked we are going to be unaware that it was. One particular form of these biases that can have a remarkable impact on our lives, especially debates of previous events, is the Hindsight Bias. To use my favorite resource for quick and dirty information Hindsight Bias is defined as follows:

Hindsight bias is the inclination to see events that have occurred as more predictable than they in fact were before they took place. Hindsight bias has been demonstrated experimentally in a variety of settings, including politics, games and medicine. In psychological experiments of hindsight bias, subjects also tend to remember their predictions of future events as having been stronger than they actually were, in those cases where those predictions turn out correct.

One explanation of the bias is the availability heuristic: the event that did occur is more salient in one’s mind than the possible outcomes that did not.

– Wikipedia

One of my favorite lines that is formed from this bias is that of “Oh man I should have seen that coming.” A person has an event that was no more likely than a another event transpire (or the difference is negligible) and yet they feel in retrospect (aka hindsight) that it was blatantly obvious that event would have transpired. When watching a horror movie we scold people who have died for not thinking about the obvious nature of their situation even though there could have been a multitude of ways it would have ended. It just so happens that the way it does end is the way that comes most strongly to the mind in hindsight.

This seems like a reasonable way to examine the past as well, events that have occurred in the past have proven that it is possible that they occur (obviously). Causally this gives them priority over ‘possible’ events that have not yet transpired. Why fear what has never been when you can much easier fear what has and at least prepare for its next occurrence (rhetorical).

Hindsight bias is also one of the many crippling tools in gambling. When playing a game where there is always the same chance of winning to losing people will feel that after X loses they are bound to win. A game as simple as ‘heads or tails’ could have people sitting around for hours waiting for a half dozen heads in a row to place 20 million dollars on tails. The remarkable thing is that regardless of what ends up happening they’ll respond with a relatively similar answer. “I knew that was going to happen.” If it is tails then they’ll probably say it in a much happier fashion and perhaps try the gamble again an hour later and lose it all, at which time they’ll respond similar to how they would have had it been 7 heads in a row the first time. “Damn. It obviously favors heads.” It’s powerful because much like confirmation bias we ignore the possibility of a contradictory outcome. We (usually) do not actively search for information to contradict what we believe is the likely (or perhaps only) outcome to a situation, to do so is to open up a can of worms, to possibly spark high levels of skepticism in all facets of life.

It’s much easier in the end to simply assume that all past events were obviously going to happen. However it is important to stress that just because this wonderful little quirk exists we should not assume that nothing is likely. If you leap from a 50 story building there is a near certainty that without aid you will die, if you light yourself afire and jump into a pool full of gasoline you will likely not survive, if you date a super model and are hoping for a thoughtful relationship you…alright that last one might of been a bit mean.

To defeat (or at least weaken) this effect it pays to (when possible) examine all possible outcomes of an event, there is no obvious result of a coin toss (specifically either side compared to its opposite) and there is no certain result to the roll of a die (cheating aside). It is important that we recognize these biases exist and try our best to not be overcome by them, otherwise we end up being terrible journalists, economists, historians, or basically any profession that involves interaction with other people or worse still positions of influence. As I’ve told my girlfriend, the brain is a whore for stimulation. We as the unusually quirky software must make sure that our hardware doesn’t go off and get us killed for its own jolts of yum yums.

That last bit inspired me, I think tomorrows discussion will be on the unusual nature of our construction (or I think I should say architecture). Humans remind me a bunch of jelly fish…or really any other living organism, but I’ll save this train of thought for tomorrow.

PS. For those that didn’t catch it, Jamie Berger himself commented on my DRM post a while back. You can find his comments here. I appreciate all input and his was no exception :).

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