Avoiding Hindsight Bias At The Workplace in 6 Steps | Toggl Blog
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Avoiding Hindsight Bias At The Workplace in 6 Steps

Theodora S. Abigail Theodora S. Abigail Last Updated:

The hindsight bias is just another one of the (seemingly endless) flaws in our wiring–unfortunately, our thought processes aren’t as perfect as those of, say, Terminators or Replicants. It’s just one of the perks of being human.

Sound catastrophic?

No worries. It’s absolutely possible to manage hindsight bias effectively.

Let’s get a little bit more acquainted with this particular flaw in our software.

  1. It’s probably been around for centuries. Historians and even philosophers wrote about this bias.
  2. It was first officially catalogued in the 1970s.
  3. It’s also called the “I knew it all along” effect or “creeping determinism”.
  4. It’s notoriously prevalent in the world of finance and politics.

Pretty interesting, right?

If we parse the word, we get “hind”, which means “back or backwards”, and “sight”, which means… well, you know what that means.

Simply put, the hindsight bias is when you look back and view an event as more predictable than it actually was.

Still confused?

Think of the hindsight bias like this:

You’re a faulty computer with a virus (the hindsight bias) that causes you to write over past data. Because of this virus, you can’t properly reconstruct past states of knowledge. Once you move from OS Bubblegum to OS Gumdrop, you… basically lose all memory that you ever ran on OS Bubblegum.

Hindsight bias can be a one-time bug, or it can be chronic. It also attacks in various degrees: according to a study done in 2012 by Neal Roese and Kathleen Vohs, there are three distinct levels of hindsight bias.

Level 1: Misremembering an earlier opinion.

We might judge someone to be a rude or terrible person, and then find evidence to the contrary. At the first level of the hindsight bias, we’ll often “rewrite” our earlier opinion and say that we knew all along how nice and friendly they were.

Level 2: Believing that an event was inevitable.

Events in life can often be unpredictable or difficult to navigate. Sometimes, we don’t like taking responsibility for bad outcomes. Instead of identifying our role in the situation, we choose to believe that there was nothing we could’ve done about it.

Say that you’re applying for a job but you forgot to prepare the night before. As a result, you bomb the interview, and the job goes to someone else who wasn’t as qualified as you were.

It can be hard to cope with the idea that you might’ve made a mistake (in not preparing enough), and instead, you tell yourself, “They would’ve gotten the job no matter what I did”.

You might even add another layer of bias and say that the situation was rigged in their favor all along.

Level 3: Insisting that we predicted an event.

We can’t really see/predict the future. No one can. Unfortunately, the hindsight bias can often lead us into believing that we do have this power.

You make a bet on your favorite team and they win–by a large margin. This leads you to believing that you personally predicted the outcome correctly.

Why does the hindsight bias exist?

Why do we exist? Why are we conscious?

Figuring out why the hindsight bias exists is as futile as telling Aunt Marge that her breakfast porridge kind of…sucks.

There are a few theories.

Some say it’s a natural coping mechanism that protects us from disappointment and embarrassment.

Some say it’s just a universal feature coded into our system.

Is the hindsight bias really so dangerous?

Now that you’ve learned a little bit about your own psychology, you might be wondering whether it really impacts you or not.

Is it dangerous?

Not always. But if it escalates, it can distort our views on reality–and negatively impact our decision making. How so?

1. It causes overconfidence.

People can’t predict the future, but a string of good luck can make us believe we can.

When we make predictions and they turn out to be right, the resulting confidence we get from the outcome can quickly balloon into overconfidence.

Be careful–overconfidence can be catastrophic in the workplace.

When you’re convinced that you predicted past events, you might start thinking you can predict future ones, too. If you bet too high and your prediction turns out to be wrong, the damage dealt just might be irreparable.

The decisions made from this faulty level of confidence are usually hasty and uninformed. Excessive risk taking can destroy your portfolio or sabotage major projects.

2. It prevents you from taking personal responsibility for your mistakes.

When we tell ourselves that a situation was inevitable, we sometimes mask the truth–that we could’ve done something to make a difference.

When we blame everything that happens on external factors, we stop looking inwards. We forget to analyze our own behaviors and actions.

Mistakes are important because they help us see where we went wrong, and they can show us a better path forward.

Hindsight bias effectively erases those mistakes from the timeline, so that we don’t have to do the hard work of admitting that we were wrong.

And if this keeps happening, it creates a thick layer of ego and stubbornness that stops us from positive growth.

3. It’s just too simple.

Hindsight bias often causes us to focus intensely on a single explanation for a situation, regardless of the truth. There are many factors that affect outcomes in the workplace (and in finance and politics).

Hindsight bias can blind us to these factors and cause us to develop tunnel vision. We stop paying attention to alternative explanations, and ignore the evidence and data we have.

Reality isn’t as simple as the hindsight bias makes it seem. As humans, we love patterns–but the world doesn’t always operate as neatly as we want it to.

When you feel like the causes of failure are obvious, you sometimes miss out on clues that lead you to where you’re supposed to go.

Roese says:

Hindsight bias often causes us to blame others more than they ought to be blamed. At its root, hindsight bias is an oversimplification of the past and a scrubbing away of prior uncertainty, doubt, and complication.

4. What else?

In court, a jury might suffer from hindsight bias by believing that the defendant in a case is capable of preventing a bad outcome.

If a criminal in court has a record, the hindsight bias might cause them to perceive that the risk is higher than it really is.

In the healthcare system, doctors and caregivers also suffer greatly from hindsight bias.

Realistically speaking, accidents are likely to happen in any human endeavor.

In negative cases like the death or injury of a patient, errors are measured by a team of people who already know the outcome. This can cause them to attribute a higher amount of blame to the doctor on duty, even if the mistake was due to a different cause.

Errors may seem preventable due to the hindsight bias, when in reality there would’ve been no human way to prevent it from happening.

In the workplace, we might unfairly place the blame in tough situations on those darn millennials, especially after reading a few articles about how terrible they are.

In reality, the failures a company faces may have nothing to do with the people on the team–it might be more related to the workflow, team organization, or the tools at their disposal.

How can we deal with hindsight bias?

Research has shown that people will still exhibit the hindsight bias even when they’re made aware of it, so it’s possible that it’s just hardwired into our system.

But though our software might be a tiny bit glitchy, we’re not completely helpless about it. Follow these steps to get a leg up on this frustrating bug.

1. First, remind yourself that you can’t predict the future.

We aren’t shamans. We aren’t magical. The magical crystal ball on the table is…really just a snowglobe.

There are certain patterns at work in the world, but they aren’t so broad that you can predict the future by studying them (they’re also probably too complex to study).

Past success doesn’t guarantee future success. Maybe one day we’ll step into the world of Limitless, or our brains will experience massive growth spurts that allow us to accurately process terabytes of data at once–but we aren’t there yet. So let’s keep it real.

2. Examine the data.

Always, always, always. Make decisions based on what the data says, not based on what you think or feel.

Get your team on board!

The story is there–all you have to do is read it.

If you don’t have any data and this is your first time making a big decision, then march on–for now. You can establish a data baseline later with Toggl, which you should refer back to every time you make a new decision.

3. Record your thought process.

Hindsight bias is revisionary. Humans have selective memories that err on the positive sides (we like happy memories better than sad ones, and prefer successes to failures).

By keeping notes about your decisions, you can steer clear of those dreaded rewrites.

What you see when you look in the figurative “mirror” will reflect clearly and accurately–that’s important if you want to make sound, reliable decisions now and in the future.

This might sound a little lame, but–keep a diary.

  • If you’re making a big investment decision, take note of why you’re doing so.
  • List the factors that you’ve considered and write a justification of the choice you want to make.
  • Talk about your suspicions, your hunches, your feelings, and, of course, the proof.

How does this help?

Once the decision is made and the outcome is released, you’ll be able to turn back to your notes and accurately reflect on the situation. The insights you gain will help you refine your process and fine-tune your decision making skills.

4. Consider alternative outcomes.

Make sure to list these, too.

Alternative outcomes can result when the situation changes–they might also occur because of miscalculations on your end.

By analyzing these possibilities and explaining (to yourself) why you chose one path over another, you’ll stay realistic and gain a more balanced view of the situation.

By thinking about how alternative outcomes might be correct, you can start to question your biases and stay more open-minded. If needed, get an outside look and ask for the help of a 3rd party expert.

5. Make your decision.

This is the easy part (or the hard part, if you’re prone to overthinking). In this process, the focus should be on the steps preceding the decision, not the outcome.

If you’re making decisions based solely on positive or negative outcomes, you might miss out on the mistakes present in your process.

What this means is: trust the process, not the outcome.

For example, you might decide to enter the lottery on a total whim. Lo and behold–once the results come out, it turns out that you’ve won the multimillion dollar jackpot!

That’s awesome, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you playing the lottery again will guarantee a winning.

The probability of another victory doesn’t change just because you’ve succeeded. And in some business situations, success might occur simply because of a fluke.

6. Analyze the outcome.

Now that you know the results of your decision, check back on those notes you took earlier.

  • How was the outcome compared to your predictions?
  • How correct were you?
  • Which factors made a difference?
  • Which factors didn’t?

By comparing your predictions and your outcomes, you’ll stay grounded and keep your confidence in check.

If your decision failed or an error was made, try going back in time and checking the steps you made to find the cause of error.

This strategy is most effective if you have a clearly defined plan of action that was taken. If you’re relying on your own memory, backtracking might not be the best choice.

In that case, it’s best to check the process, and figure out how you can alter the process so that the outcome is more positive.

If you’re still struggling with the hindsight bias, don’t worry.

It does have a few positive applications: it can lead to increased confidence in decision making, and help bring out leadership aspects in people who were previously shy and prone to worry.

The mistakes made due to the hindsight bias can also help others learn.

The bottom line? Rely less on your gut feeling and more on the concrete reflections, insights, and notes. Or simply use skills assessments to verify candidates’ skills. 

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