Bias in retrospect: why it all seems obvious once it has happened

Human thought is constantly driven by a multitude of prejudices, some easier to identify than others.

This time we will focus on retrospective biases, A psychological mechanism that we use more often than we realize and that produces an effect that some people are more aware of than others. Next, we’ll explore why this phenomenon occurs.

    What is retrospective bias?

    Retrospective bias or retrospective bias is a deviation from the human cognitive process by which we tend to consider that an event, once it has taken place, was much more predictable than it actually was. In other words, a person who falls into this bias will believe that a certain event, it has already occurred, was predictable, when in fact it was not meant to be.

    This phenomenon is also called progressive determinism. Retrospective bias has a number of consequences. First, a subject’s memories of the particular event can be distorted, because in order to accommodate the effect of this bias, the person may subconsciously change the data they thought they knew about that event before it happened. happen.

    In other words, the person will think that they knew better what was going to happen than what they actually knew before. Not only is this a problem of distortion of the past, but retrospective bias can also affect the future, as it can foster a confidence based on distorted facts in the face of future events. Therefore, the person might think that they have more control capacity than they actually have.

    Discovery of retrospective biases in scientific research

    Although this concept began to be used in psychology studies in the 1970s, the truth is that it was already a widely known phenomenon in popular culture, although it had not yet been referred to by this technical name. In fact, it had already been observed in different fields of study.

    For example, there are studies which indicate that many physicians feel they have a greater diagnostic capacity than they actually have, because once the disease experienced by the patient has been found, they seem to rate the safety of the patient. -above the actual percentage. Who knew this diagnosis in advance.

    The retrospective bias has also been observed in many works of historians who, knowing in advance the outcome of certain events, seem to give them as obvious and inevitable in their analyzes, when they did not have to be so obvious to the people who experienced them. events live at this particular moment in history.

    But it was in the 1970s that he was brought into the academic field of psychology, by the hand of two Israeli researchers: Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. These authors sought to find the basis of a retrospective bias. They came to the conclusion that this phenomenon was supported by two others, which were the heuristic of representativeness and that of availability.

    The representativeness heuristic is used when we want to estimate the probability that a certain fact occurs knowing that another has occurred which is somehow related. Therefore, the key is to assess how well that first event might represent what is happening to the second.

    In the case of the availability heuristic, this is another mechanism linked to retrospective bias. In this case, this heuristic would involve using the most accessible examples for an individual on a given topic in order to assess that category as a whole. In other words, that is to say it would be taking the concrete in order to be able to decide.

    In Tversky and Kahneman’s studies, volunteers were asked to rate the likelihood that they saw a series of actions during an international tour of then-US President Richard Nixon. Some time later they were summoned again because after the president’s efforts were over.

    This time what they were asked to estimate the probabilities that they themselves believed they considered in the first part of the study, This time already knowing the results of the acts performed by Nixon. It was found that indeed, when the fact had actually occurred, the subjects gave it a higher probability than those who did not.

    Another study, in this case by Baruch Fischhoff, posed participants with a situation in which they were exposed to a certain story with four possible outcomes, all plausible. Each group was told that one of the results was real and the others were fictitious. They were then asked to estimate the probabilities of occurrence of each of them.

    Indeed all groups estimated the result that was given to them much more likely than the actual result. The conclusion is clear: when something happened (or we think it happened, as in this study), it seems obvious to us that it happened in this particular way and not in another. way.

      Factors involved in retrospective bias

      We already know what the retrospective bias consists of and what has been its evolution historically. See we will delve deeper into the factors involved in the functioning of this mental shortcut. These are the main ones.

      1. Value and strength of the result

      One of the factors that has to do with whether retrospective bias occurs with varying degrees of intensity is the value that the same outcome of events has to the subject, as well as the force with which it occurs. In this sense, if the result is negative for the person, it tends to emit a stronger bias.

      In other words, If an unfortunate event arises for a particular person, he will most likely believe it was obvious that it was going to turn out that way. in particular that if there had been the event, it would have been positive for that same person. The result doesn’t even have to affect that individual personally, they just need to be able to categorize it as negative for this effect to occur.

      2. Hope

      The surprise factor, i.e. what is expected or not from an event, Also influences when it comes to improving or minimizing retrospective bias. Surprise always provokes in the individual the search for a congruence between past events and the final result. If we manage to generate that sense in between, we will fall into a retrospective bias and think that the event was more likely than it actually was.

      But if we find it difficult to establish a direct relationship between the information we have and the end of the event, the opposite effect will be created in us the low retrospective, since we will come to the conclusion that there was no way to know the result obtained.

      3. Personality traits

      Obviously, hindsight, like so many other psychological phenomena, does not affect everyone in the same way. There are certain personality traits that make a subject more or less vulnerable to falling into this trap of cognition. Studies have been done that show that individual differences affect the way people make inferences.

      Of course, this directly affects the use of the retrospective bass. There will be some people who are more likely to fall into this mechanism while others will do so to a lesser degree., Faced with a situation of similar conditions.

      4. Subject’s age

      Estimating whether age has been a factor affecting retrospective bias has been problematic for some time. This is because raising children with the same issues as those used with the adult participants was difficult due to their complexity. But some researchers have been able to develop similar nonverbal evidence, simply by using fuzzy numbers that matched certain images.

      When participants knew in advance what the object was represented by the blurry image, because the researchers had made it known to them, it seemed much more obvious to them that it represented this image than when asked the same question before showing them the final image. .

      Once the relevant studies have been carried out with young subjects, retrospective bias is found to have affected both children and adult children, Although they cannot be assessed in the same way, because the level of cognitive development is necessary to adapt the tests to children.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Fischhoff, B. (2007). An ancient history of retrospective research. Social cognition. Guilford Press.
      • Guilbault, RL, Bryant, FB, Brockway, JH, Posavac, EJ (2004). A meta-analysis of the research on retrospective bias. Basic and applied social psychology. Taylor and Francis.
      • Nestler, S., Egloff, B., Küfner, ACP, Back, MD (2012). An integrative lens model approach to the bias and accuracy of human inferences: retrospective effects and updated knowledge in personality judgments Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
      • Roese, NJ, Vohs, KD (2012). Retrospective bias. Perspectives on Psychological Science.
      • Tversky, A., Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: heuristics and bias. Science.

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