Exploring the effects of hindsight bias on students’ and athletes’ success.



  You walk out of your math midterm, unsure of that last multiple-choice question. “I’m sure it’s C..it has to be..none of the other options seemed right”, you reassuringly tell yourself, attempting to extinguish any traces of self-doubt. Days later, you’ve forgotten all about it— until you find yourself back in the classroom— steadily gripping the corrected test within your hands. You hurriedly glance over the questions, halting only at the end of the test. You see the C in your messy handwriting crossed out with a bright red pen, and a small B scribbled beside it instead.  “I knew it…I knew it had to be B…I don’t even know why I picked C!..I just made a dumb mistake”, you catch yourself saying, frustratedly, almost in direct contradiction to your beliefs a few days ago.  

Now, there are times when we as students legitimately make “silly mistakes” on our tests. However, more often than not, our brain tricks us into thinking that we knew the outcome or the answer to the question to assure us that we are in the know.

Foreseeing the outcome to an event after learning the result — whether it be a multiple-choice question or last night’s basketball game — is a psychological phenomenon termed as hindsight bias. Developed in the 1970’s by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, two researchers in the field of heuristics and biases, hindsight bias has quickly found its way from being a concentrated study at a Hebrew University in Israel to a topic researched globally. Popularly known as the “I-knew-it-all-along” phenomenon, or creeping determinism, hindsight bias has been proven to play a pivotal part in our success as students, be it academics or even sports. 

And, while there is research connecting our perception of historic events with hindsight bias, perhaps the most well researched links are between this bias and it as an impediment to students’ learning.

Telling yourself that you knew the answer to that question all along — although you might not have — makes the question, and indirectly the test, seem more predictable than it actually is. 

Sophomore Shirin Haldar recollects seeing this behavior in her peers, oftentimes after tests. 

“I feel like this is common in kids our age…I’ve heard it many times,” Haldar said. “People are like ‘that was such a dumb mistake’…or ‘why did I do that…the answer is clearly this.’”

But, this phenomena seems harmless, right?

Researchers think differently. Predicting events makes students overconfident in their abilities, subsequently preventing them from learning from their mistakes. Overconfidence, when considered as a cognitive bias, refers to the tendency for people to overestimate their degree of knowledge about some aspect of the world. When we predict the answer to a question correctly,  we are inclined to believe that we have the ability to predict other events, too. This can make individuals overconfident, distorting their ability to make rational decisions. For instance, students would prepare less for a test than you might actually need to, solely based on this faulty level of confidence. You are also not as likely to revisit your mistakes, because you know it all along, right? Students also may not feel there is a need to change their study strategies. 

Hindsight bias and overconfidence measures were concluded in a large study conducted by Mathhew B. Welsh, from the University of Adelaide. Specifically, participants were shown a question they had previously answered, along with the correct answer and then asked whether they believed they had answered the question correctly. Their overall score for this measure was the difference between the percentage of questions they now recalled getting right and the percentage they actually did.

The results showed a “moderately strong tendency,” at a significance level of less than 0.001 — more than 61% recalled being right more often than they actually were.

Not just students though — this skewed judgment also affects athletes. 

Hindsight bias is proven to cause memory distortion. Solely due to the fact that the event happened the way you visualized it, researchers find that you go back and revise your memory of what you were thinking right before the event. You essentially rewrite history, altering the probabilities. Later on, you base decisions on those higher probabilities, although, in reality the probabilities haven’t changed, causing poor judgment.

Memory is fallible, it is subject to distortion and it changes over time and with repeated recollection. Hindsight bias is one way in which memory distortions can occur, and they are very important to learn about because they do impede learning and accurate perceptions of what has happened in the past,” Dr. William Keleman, the psychology department chair at Texas State University, said. “They impact judgements about past events, and that can affect our perception of future events.”

Athletes and coaches use their altered view of past events and their distorted memory to make their next decision; to decide their football plays, or their next shot. 

Thomas Gilovich, a Stanford psychologist analyzed the 1980-1981 season of the Philadelphia 76ers. He found that the chance a basketball player has of making a shot is actually unrelated to the outcome of his previous shot. In Gilovich’s words, “a player’s performance on a given shot is independent of his performance on previous shots.”

Essentially, we are using our distorted memory to predict events, but in reality these events aren’t even predictable, often cueing us to make incorrect assumptions that commonly lead to our downfall.

What can you do to de-bias?

“If you look at the event and you think ‘that should have happened’ and you ‘knew it all along’ then it helps to think of a way that it could have played out differently; in real life it didn’t have to be that way.  It wasn’t a foregone conclusion,” Dr. Keleman said. “It can help to keep in mind that it was not as definite as you might have thought it was.”

Sophomore Saloni Gupta talks about her own efforts to curb this bias by reflecting on the event. 

“After a test I’m like ‘Yeah, that has to be the answer,’ Gupta said. “But when I really reflect back on it, I realize that ‘No, I don’t really know what to do, and even if I had more time or something, I would probably not get the answer.’ . . . I was overestimating my abilities.” 

Apart from reflecting consciously on the event, it is also crucial to keep in mind an inevitable fact of life, whenever you catch yourself prey to this bias: the future isn’t predictable. Everyone predicts, but someone is always wrong.

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