May 29, 2022

Are we Re-Traumatizing Ourselves with our Hindsight Bias?


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Have you heard of “hindsight bias”?

I just recently came across this term on social media. Someone had posted about a traumatic event in their life and the comment section was rife with people claiming they would have seen it coming, would have known better, and would have handled it differently. You’ve seen these types of comments plenty of times, I’m sure.

But one interesting comment called all the others out, claiming that everyone was suffering from a bad case of hindsight bias.

Wikipedia explains hindsight bias as:

“Hindsight bias, also known as the knew-it-all-along phenomenon or creeping determinism, is the common tendency for people to perceive past events as having been more predictable than they actually were. People often believe that after an event has occurred, they would have predicted or perhaps even would have known with a high degree of certainty what the outcome of the event would have been before the event occurred.

Hindsight bias may cause distortions of memories of what was known or believed before an event occurred, and is a significant source of overconfidence regarding an individual’s ability to predict the outcomes of future events. Examples of hindsight bias can be seen in the writings of historians describing outcomes of battles, physicians recalling clinical trials, and in judicial systems as individuals attribute responsibility on the basis of the supposed predictability of accidents.”

After learning more about this, I had a question:

Is it possible that we’re re-traumatizing ourselves with our hindsight bias?

Think about any horrible situation you’ve been through, and I’m not talking about just a bad day. I’m referring to a life event. A traumatic accident, the day your wife left, when you were fired or laid off, a really bad moving experience, a friend breakup, a death. Something like that. It sticks with you for years—or forever.

When we re-hash these events (over and over as many of us tend to do in our pain), our hindsight bias will tell us that we could have prevented that accident, seen how unhappy our wife was and sought therapy, anticipated the lay-off, etc. We convince ourselves we should have been all-knowing, all-seeing superheroes with the ability to predict the future. We overestimate our ability—not now, but at that time, in those circumstances—to make different decisions.

Instead, we are soft, mushy humans with a lot going on in our lives (far too much to super-examine every person and situation to avoid bad things from happening).

So, on top of the trauma of an already bad situation, we’re creating more of it by expecting that we should have seen it coming, should have prepared, should have handled it differently, and should never have made that mistake (please name one person who has never made a mistake in their lives). In addition to having lived through something horrible, we’re piling guilt and blame on ourselves for thinking we should have known better. (And note that this is different than the very normal feelings we have when we’re owning our part in a bad situation.)

In fact, we even begin to remember things differently than they really happened once we’ve been through the event and can see the whole picture. We believe we knew more about the situation, or that we were able to pick up on signs, when really, that wasn’t the case.

As if the traumatic event wasn’t bad enough, we’re adding a fresh layer to it with our perceived (and often incorrect) ability to have prevented it in the first place. We begin to distrust our instincts, our intelligence, our worth. We may even go so far as to think we deserved whatever happened because if we were better people, it wouldn’t have happened.

We’re hurting our own feelings, basically.

So when you catch yourself looking back over something painful and traumatic and you start in with the coulds and shoulds—the hindsight bias—remember these two things:

1. Write your pain out. 

It doesn’t have to be shared, but write, write, write—as you are going through the event, not after. Be detailed and specific. Later, when you start to question yourself, you can look back on what was actually happening and what your thoughts were, and you can remind yourself that there were many reasons why you ended up in that situation. This can really help with the over-blaming we do to ourselves.

2. It’s okay that you didn’t have the answers in the moment.

We are not robots. We all get caught up in our emotions. We’re all carrying varying degrees of trauma. We all have a billion confusing thoughts about a person or situation that could influence our decision-making, and we only know what we know. Yes, we all have intuition, and we can all think critically—and that serves us well fairly often. But there’s no way we can see every twist and turn. Sometimes things are cloudy and muddled. Sometimes the unexpected happens. Sometimes we could have seen it coming, but we chose to ignore that for many valid reasons (that don’t seem so valid after the fact—hindsight bias). Sometimes we forget to look both ways before crossing. You know? Forgive yourself.

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