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Hindsight Bias: Understanding the 'I Knew It All Along' Phenomenon

Susan Halsey - Writer for Top10
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A woman having an online therapy session contemplating hindsight bias.
Have you ever looked back on an event and thought, "I should've known that would happen"? This feeling is a classic example of hindsight bias, where we mistakenly believe past events were more predictable than they actually were.

Research shows that the impact of hindsight bias on our decision-making varies significantly. Depending on how familiar we are with a task and the type of outcome information presented, anywhere from 0% to as much as 27% of people may change their beliefs because of this bias. But it goes deeper than this.

With more than 20 years of experience in clinical psychology, I've seen many people seek online therapy sessions to address the complexities that come with hindsight bias. Before delving into the significant challenges it brings, let me explain why and how we see things differently when we look back.

» Learn all there is to know about how online therapy works.

Understanding Hindsight Bias

Dr. Stephanie Freitag, a licensed psychologist and adjunct assistant professor at the Emory School of Medicine, says, "Hindsight bias—or the 'knew it all along' phenomenon—is a social psychology term for people's tendency to believe that they could have predicted the outcome of an event after it has already occurred."

When you know what happened in the past, it can change how you see it later. You may feel like you could've guessed what was going to happen. This inclination can make you believe you have more control over certain events or that you're good at predicting them.

Examples of Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias often shows up in everyday situations, where we believe in retrospect that we knew more than we actually did at the time. Here are some typical examples:

  • Medical diagnoses: Believing you knew all along what the illness was, but only after doctors confirm the diagnosis.
  • Life outcomes: Feeling you should've been certain about the result of a major personal choice, like moving, only after seeing how it turns out.
  • Personal relationships: Thinking you always knew a significant other would be abusive.
  • Traumatic events: Feeling like you should've had an inkling something traumatic would happen, even though you couldn't control or avoid it.
  • Natural disasters: Saying you were sure a disaster would happen, and regretting not taking certain precautions, even though such events are often unpredictable.
  • Monday morning quarterbacking: Criticizing coaches and players after the game, claiming you had a hunch about who would win.

Causes of Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias occurs for various reasons, from the way we form memories to complex thinking processes. Our brains naturally try to make sense of the world. They seek closure, preferring an organized, predictable world to reduce stress. This helps us to survive but it also makes us vulnerable to delusions.

In 2000, researchers at the Max Planck Institute developed the RAFT model to explain hindsight bias. This model suggests that our brains use this bias to process information quickly. When we learn new things, it can change our first thoughts about something.

Later, a study found that hindsight bias begins in the brain when we form memories. The professors noted that our minds often remember things the way we think they should be, which makes us create stories that fit the facts we have.

Another research project showed that when we're not sure about something, new details can influence our minds more easily. The more we doubt, the more likely our memories are to be distorted.

A woman thinking about her assumptions and how hindsight bias has distorted her earlier beliefs

How Hindsight Bias Impacts Our Mental Health

A biased perspective can affect how you interpret events. This can potentially harm your mental health, especially if you're already facing other challenges.

Trauma Survivors

Hindsight bias means our minds distort how we interpret our circumstances—both when we're just starting to figure out what's happening and then later when we're trying to make sense of it. If we're unsure or confused about something, this effect can get even stronger. As a result, we believe that we should've seen a distressing experience coming.

If you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you may find that hindsight bias sets off negative thought patterns and leads to a lack of confidence in yourself or others. There's also a tendency to believe you could've predicted or prevented the traumatic event—which is an overestimation of your control over the situation.

For those who've survived childhood trauma or sexual abuse, the closeness to the perpetrator complicates matters. You may think you could've stopped the abuse, but this is often a distorted belief. This perspective can intensify the trauma, making us blame ourselves rather than showing self-compassion.

Individuals With Depression and Schizophrenia

It's often thought that people with depression lean more towards a negative hindsight bias, thinking things like "I knew it wouldn't work out." However, research hasn't conclusively proven this notion.

Studies have found, though, that people with schizophrenia are more strongly affected by hindsight bias than those in the general population. They're more likely to think they knew something all along, even when they learned it after the fact.

» Need support? Look into our best online therapy and counseling options for depression.

Hindsight Bias and Its Role in Personal Relationships

Hindsight bias can impact personal relationships in several ways. If you've experienced trauma or have PTSD, you may find yourself thinking you could've predicted or changed things in your relationships, even when it wasn't possible.

This can lead to unfairly blaming yourself or others and might cause misunderstandings, especially if you insist you knew something was going to happen when you really didn't. This bias can make it difficult to trust and communicate with the people in your life.

You may also feel overly responsible for things going wrong, which can affect how you connect with others and maintain healthy relationships. Remember, it's common to think this way, but you need to recognize when hindsight bias is influencing your thoughts and relationships.

A man and a woman sitting on a couch having a misunderstanding because of hindsight bias.

Mitigating Hindsight Bias

Now that you know what hindsight bias is, there are some steps you can take to minimize its effects:

  • Try journaling for self-reflection: Write down your thoughts and feelings and compare the current perspective with your initial observations. Be specific about the problem, thoughts, feelings, and potential solutions. This helps you see how your thoughts change.
  • Rely on diverse reading and communication: Talk to others you trust. Read about hindsight bias and how to accommodate for the partiality using insight from different authors.
  • Stay accountable with loved ones: Tell people close to you what you're trying to do and ask them to help you stay on track. This can help strengthen your bonds and relationships.
  • Recognize "snap judgments": Snap judgments are a warning indicator of possible bias. Try to see things from different perspectives before deciding.
  • Choose compassion over judgment: Recognize biased thoughts and investigate the assumptions behind your conclusions. Be kind and patient with yourself, even if it initially feels unnatural.
  • Consider alternative outcomes: Don't just focus on what actually happened. Think about other possibilities. This helps you see things more clearly and releases you from the idea that what happened was inevitable.

How Online Therapy Can Help You Manage Hindsight Bias

Mitigating hindsight bias is important for personal growth and decision-making. However, sometimes, self-help strategies like these may not be enough. This is where professional guidance from online counselors on platforms like BetterHelp and Cerebral can be incredibly beneficial.

Engaging in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness practices with leading online therapy specialists can help change your perspective on past events. They can help you recognize and challenge distorted thoughts associated with hindsight bias, allowing you to develop a more balanced view of past events.

They can also encourage you to stay present and aware of your thoughts and emotions without judgment. This can enhance your understanding and acceptance of your reactions to past events. Additionally, counselors can equip you with practical strategies to cope with challenging emotions and provide tools to navigate future situations.

If you're dealing with biases and automatic thoughts that make you feel guilty, ashamed, or regretful, online therapy can help you identify, accept, and work through these feelings.

» Here are 10 mental health conditions cognitive behavioral therapy can help with.

An online therapist having session with a patient who's dealing with hindsight bias.

Conquering Hindsight Bias

The secret to a happy and meaningful life is maintaining sound mental health, which enhances general well-being. This allows you to overcome obstacles, develop resilience, and savor the depth of your experiences.

Yes, hindsight bias affects decisions, relationships, and mental health, but online therapists can give you insights and strategies to navigate and lessen its impact. This promotes a healthier view of the past and gives you a more fulfilling present.

» Interested in a session but on a budget? Take a look at how much online therapy therapy costs.

Susan Halsey - Writer for Top10
With 20+ years of experience as a licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Susan Halsey specializes in anxiety, mood disorders, ADHD, relationships, and sports psychology. She's a certified soccer coach and champions mental wellness through exercise and support networks.

The author of this article has been paid by Natural Intelligence to write this article. Neither the author nor Natural Intelligence provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or your local emergency number immediately.