Monday, November 18, 2013

The Trouble with Hindsight

It's a funny thing about hindsight. Although we may say "hindsight is 20/20," it's actually much less accurate. My sister was here to visit with me this past weekend and two days with her reminded me of just how different our memories of the same event can be. We were talking about the way our mother so often dressed her in pink or some other pastel and me in blue, brown or red. She commented, "You and mom always picked out the pink fabric for me, even though I looked so washed out in that color. I never got to pick a color that looked good on me."

Now the part about her being dressed in pink, I do remember. With her naturally blonde hair and blue eyes, our mother thought she was perfect in pink. The truth is, she really looks sensational in warm colors--yellow, coral, orange, and tan, but she never got to wear these as a child.

The part about me having any say or influence about this, I do not recall. I remember myself as the perfect big sister, but that's the funny thing about hindsight. We tend to believe we recall the past with picture-perfect clarity, while others have difficulty separating their blurred perceptions from reality. Had I not been working on this article, I may have been tempted to discount what she said. 

Hindsight Bias
"Looking back, I think I knew something was wrong from the beginning. In fact, we probably should never have married. I don't think I ever loved Kyle the way a woman should love her husband."

"I don't believe we ever had that spark. Do you know what I mean? We were pretty compatible and she's a great mother, but we've never had the kind of passion I have with Bridget."

These are the kinds of things I've heard on numerous occasions in therapy as one partner explains to me why he or she is involved with someone else and thinking about leaving the marriage. You can label it as "re-writing history," or "living life in the rearview mirror," but these are just other names for what psychologists call "hindsight bias.

Hindsight bias is the tendency to believe we "knew it all along," or the inclination to see things in the present as more predictable than they actually are. According to Manejwala, it's a "bias that basically allows you to believe that, even though you recently acquired a belief, you really have thought that way for a long time" (Cravings, p. 54). It creates a lot of problems in intimate relationships gone awry. One partner will bring me past love letters, emails and even videos they received from their drifting-toward-a-divorce partner and demand, "Is he saying this is all a lie? Did he even mean these words at the time? What am I to believe?"

Of course, there's really no good way to answer these kinds of distraught questions other than to say that sometimes people rewrite history to justify a decision they are making in the moment. The perplexing thing is that they aren't able to recognize what they're doing. They really believe they felt or thought this way all along, even though there's plenty of evidence to the contrary.

But hindsight bias doesn't confine itself to intimate relationships. According to Manejwala, it can be a huge problem for those struggling with craving or an addiction. When this occurs most of us will explain away our self-destructive actions as if we knew what we were doing the whole time and were acting as we did for a reason (e.g., dealing with our depression, self-medicating, coping with work-related stress). In other words, although it might have been wrong, ill-advised or destructive, we knew what we were doing and did it for a reason. We foolishly believe that unlike others, we are immune to hindsight bias. Manejwala notes the following:

Research shows that people who are more vulnerable to the hindsight bias are more often concerned with their image, social desirability, and need for predictability and control. The hindsight bias helps you protect those beliefs (Craving, p. 54).

Have others described you as "controlling?" Do you have a strong need to present a positive image to others? Is it difficult for you to accept less than flattering parts of your personality or behavior? If so, you may be even more vulnerable to errors in thinking that prevent you from acknowledging or accepting another's perspective.

What can be done to sharpen our view? Welcoming the input of others in a non-defensive manner can help. The passage of time is also useful. Manejwala writes, "the further the dangerous behavior or event is in the past, the more likely we are to draw reasonable conclusions about it." He also cautions that time is not a guarantee we'll become more reasonable, but it's more likely.

Seeing my sister was so much fun, but it also had the added benefit of defogging my rearview mirror. I think we need to hang out together more often.

Thinking fondly of my sister, Mary, I remain ...

Dr. Jennifer Baker



  1. As your old (er, former) babysitter, I love those photos of you and Mary as little girls. In hindsight, my memories of you two (and Norman) as children are all good.

  2. You both were such cute little girls! I loved seeing these old photos of you and my mom.