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November 16, 2013

Hindsight Bias is a form of deluded thinking. Hindsight bias occurs when in response to a trauma we have experienced, we blame ourselves for decisions we made that may or may not have caused the trauma.

For example, some years ago a friend of mine purchased a different brand of dog food for her dog, after the brand she routinely purchased was no longer in  stock at the store. Well it turned out that the brand of dog food she purchased had been tainted with some deadly chemicals, which led to her dog becoming ill and passing away. It was only after the dog had passed away that a recall was issued by the brand. She habitually blamed herself for days for purchasing the dog food, despite myself and other friends informing her that there was no possible way she could have known that the dog food tainted.

Hindsight bias is a form of deluded thinking because it leads us to believe that we had some measure of control over a tragedy we experienced, based on what we have come to learn about the facts, after the fact. Even though there was no way we could have known that such an incident could have occurred, given we were in the dark about certain facts.

We have a tendency to resort to hindsight bias because our decisions are based on our innate desire to achieve desired outcomes when we implement solutions to solve problems in our lives. So in the event that a decision we make leads to a tragedy, we feel more comfortable blaming ourselves instead coming to accept that the tragedy was out of our control.

Some people have difficulty coming to accept that we are powerless over external events, but that topic will be reserved for a different post.

Consider this diagram:

Hindsight bias diagram_01(1)

In the diagram above, while it is acknowledged that a single decision could yield multiple outcomes, it is also acknowledged that your ability to make a decision that makes the best sense to you and others around you,  is limited to what you know about the problem.  There was no way for my friend to know that she was purchasing tainted dog food from a store she considered reputable, based on her years of shopping there.

In her laments, she would says things like, “why didn’t I drive an extra forty minutes to the other store?” One of us would then remind her that such a decision would have seemed  irrational at the time,  given that she did not know the food was tainted. Even in civil court cases, responsibility for a tragedy is determined by how much information an alleged responsible party had, before the decision was rendered.

When considering the five stages of grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, people who struggle with hindsight bias, find themselves stuck on  bargaining. This places them in a chronic state of guilt, anger and depression (anger expressed inwards) unrelated to the actual stages of the grieving process.

Once people who are grieving, come to understand how hindsight bias is influencing their grieving process, they become motivated towards  resume a healthy process of grieving.

Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.

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