July 25, 2021

Hindsight is easier than foresight

The Washington Post story in the Wednesday morning newspaper reported on what psychologists call “hindsight bias,” or what we who are less polite are likely to call Monday morning quarterbacking. By whatever name, the phenomenon is the smug feeling that, after an event happens, we knew all along it was going to occur.

“Across a wide spectrum of issues, from politics to the vagaries of the stock market, experiments show that once people know something, they readily believe that they knew it all along,” Post reporter Shankar Vedantam wrote.

To make the point about this major systematic error in human perception, Vedantam cited reaction to a recently declassified national intelligence report that concluded that the war in Iraq is creating more terrorists than it is eliminating. As a result, the ranks of the “I-told-you-so” crowd jumping on the anti-war bandwagon appear to be growing so rapidly that the old wagon, creaking and groaning to a farethewell and facing imminent collapse from severe overloading, has become a menace to navigation.

“This is not to say that no one predicted the war in Iraq would go badly, or that the insurgency would last so long. Many did,” Vedantam suggested. “But where people might once have called such scenarios possible, or even likely, many will now be certain that they had known for sure that this was the only possible outcome…”

Boy, ain’t that the truth. If the number of armchair experts with perfect 20/20 hindsight concerning the conduct of the war were laid end to end they’d surely reach from here to Baghdad and back, calling all the while for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s head on a platter. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you.

Hindsight bias is not confined to the heavy subjects of war and related politics, of course, although politics is certainly a mother lode of great spasms of it, the stampede by Washington politicians to seek cover from the capital’s current sex scandal fallout being Exhibit A.

In the daily struggle between Monday morning’s workday blues and the liberation of Friday quitting time, hindsight bias is a welcome diversion that comes naturally for many an average bear, as well.

The obvious example here in Red Sox Nation would be grass-roots reaction to the predictable September swoon of New England’s major league baseball team. Show me a Red Sox fan who doesn’t claim to have seen the latest home-stretch collapse coming way back on opening day in April, even as hope in lesser jurisdictions was springing eternally, and I’ll show you a rare bird woefully out of sync with the biorhythms of his fellow pessimists.

While hindsight bias is self-serving, it may also be how the brain makes sense of past events, a psychologist quoted in the Post story said. “Once something happens, we plumb the past for pieces of evidence that led to that outcome, while ignoring all the factors that could have led to different outcomes,” he explained.

If that’s not an accurate assessment of Red Sox Nation’s governing principle (“It’s no use worrying, because nothing is going to turn out OK”) it will do until you can find a better one.

“Of all the horrid, hideous notes of woe/Sadder than owl songs or the midnight blast,/Is that portentous phrase, ‘I told you so,'” Lord Byron wrote nearly 200 years ago, and anyone who has ever been told “I told you so” by a nagging spouse might conclude that the old coot had it just about right.

Flattening your thumb with a hammer while trying to complete a honey-do project about the house is a situation not noticeably improved by having your dearly beloved remind you that barely 30 seconds earlier she had warned you to be careful not to pound your thumb. Such an untimely told-you-so reminder would constitute a horrid, hideous note of woe sadder than any owl’s song and sufficient to make Lord Byron proud.

Told-you-so situations occur in just about every aspect of our daily lives. On the golf course while hunting for an errant ball: “I told you you were using way too much club there…” In the ambulance on the way from the restaurant to the hospital emergency room: “You didn’t believe me when I said, ‘Don’t order the spinach.'” And most likely even in outer space: “I knew you were steering us too close to that black hole.”

But the ultimate guilt trip involving hindsight bias may be that depicted in a photograph tacked to my bulletin board. It shows a large tombstone in a quiet country cemetery. The epitaph reads simply: “I told you I was sick.”

NEWS columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His e-mail address is olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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