The past, the past is. And there is one irrefutable fact: we cannot change our decisions or actions in the past. And what do we usually do about it? Change our perception of what happened and remember our own decisions as better than they actually were.
This psychological effect is known as hindsight or bias. it manifests when we look back in time and in fact believe that the events that occurred were more predictable than they really were when a particular decision was made.
What is a cognitive bias?
A cognitive bias is a deviation in ordinary cognitive processing that leads the individual to distort and misinterpret the information available.
Such irrational judgments, as with retrospective bias, emerge as an evolutionary need from which our brain is able to make instant judgments without the mediation of a more elaborate and therefore slower system of interpretation. While they can lead us to make serious misinterpretations, in certain contexts and situations they help us make better and more effective decisions.
The concept of cognitive bias was introduced by psychologists and researchers Daniel Kahneman and Tversky in 1972, as a result of his experience finding patients unable to reason intuitively with large-scale figures. Both have argued that the most important human decisions are based on a limited number of heuristic principles – mind aids we use to simplify reality and solve problems – and not on a formal analysis of facts. This theory directly contradicts the model of rational decision-making that prevailed at the time.
Retrospective bias: what it is and how it influences us
It is common for prejudices or retrospective prejudices to operate whenever an economic or social crisis arises. For example, after the 2008 global financial crisis, triggered by the collapse of the housing bubble and subprime mortgage fraud in the United States, we could see how many economists who did not predict its devastating effects claimed a posteriori were indeed predictable and they knew what would eventually happen.
This bias also has a lot to do with the ability that we humans have to remember certain events. Our memory system does not work like a computer: Memories fade over time and we reconstruct some of them from the accumulation of new experiences. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has studied so-called “false memories” for years, postulating the theory that how someone is asked to remember something influences their subsequent description of the record itself.
These processing errors that distort our memoryAs with retrospective biases, which lead us to modify the memory of our beliefs before the passage of a particular fact in favor of the final conclusion, they determine our vision of ourselves and of what surrounds us. Historians, skewing the outcome or development of a historical battle, or doctors, skewing the negative effects of a clinical trial, are two examples of professions affected by this bias.
What does the research say about this?
If a bias such as retrospective seems, a priori, an easily explained and identifiable error, the vast majority of studies conclude that it is very difficult to make judgments about something that has happened without completely disregarding the resultSo it is also difficult to try to counter its effect. Numerous studies have confirmed this bias and, in recent years, attempts have been made to determine whether judges succumb to it more or less than, for example, members of a jury.
In this regard, in 2001, a study was conducted among 167 US federal court judges and it was concluded that judges were affected by retrospective bias to the same extent as the rest of the citizens. Another empirical study by researchers WK Viscusi and R. Hastie in 2002 also concluded that the same effects derived from retrospective bias influenced the judge’s judgment, but to a lesser extent.
According to the study, although jurors were right to incorporate moral and social assessments into their verdict that allowed for a harmful act or behavior to be classified as malicious (thus punishing the accused and preventing similar behavior in the future). ), errors and prejudices abounded that turned sentencing verdicts into an unpredictable lottery. Professional judges, on the other hand, erred to a lesser extent, which calls into question the suitability of jurors, although they are in their most democratic form.
How to fight this and other prejudices
There is no magic formula that guarantees to avoid irrational and biased judgments like hindsight, but yes we can consider certain keys to minimize their effects. The first is to start by assuming and accepting an uncomfortable truth: that we are not smarter than anyone and that we are all, without exception, sensitive to its effects, no matter what studies we have or how we feel. create rational ourselves.
Bias, as evolutionary mechanisms, are there and exist for a reason: Streamline decision making and response to stimuli, problems or situations that we might not otherwise be able to cope with due to the inability of our cognitive system to process all available information in the shortest possible time.
Once we have come to terms with our own vulnerability to the effects of the irrational, the next step is how to deal with the information we receive from our context and from other people. It is important to weigh the data and demand evidence in the face of allegations that raise suspicion. Intuition without the support of reason does not lead to success. We must set against objective facts and data all opinions, our own and those of others. And be aware that making decisions based on a self-assessment of our abilities can be misleading.
Finally, make sure you are always right. Listen carefully and try to understand the real meaning of the information which is provided to us by our interlocutor may be the best remedy against self-deception. Closing our eyes and ears to the evidence so as not to see our established beliefs in danger is the prelude to one of the greatest evils of our society: sectarianism. And paraphrasing the American psychologist Gordon Allport: “People who are aware or who are ashamed of their prejudices are also those who are on the road of repression.”
Other types of bias
There are many cognitive biases that lead us to make mistakes and make irrational judgments.But we can’t just focus on retrospective biases. There are many more that we need to keep in mind. The most famous are the following:
1. Correction of sliding effect
It’s about believing or doing something that a lot of people do. In other words, that is to say the probability of occurrence of a behavior would increase according to the number of individuals who support it. This bias is partly responsible for how we perpetuate many of the myths and misconceptions (such as thinking we only use 10% of our brain or believing homeopathy works) so entrenched in our society today.
2. Anchor correction
It is the tendency to “anchor” and use the first information that comes in, then make judgments or make decisions.
The consequences of this bias are often used very effectively by all types of sellers and sellers. A very obvious example can be found in car dealerships. The seller shows us a vehicle and offers us a specific price (for example, € 5,000). This first information, in this case a number, made us keep in mind throughout the purchase process the number that the seller has offered us. In this way, he is the one who comes out with the advantage of being able to negotiate on his own terms.
3. Correction of the fundamental attribution error
It is the tendency to attribute exclusively to an individual’s internal traits (such as personality or intelligence) his observable behavior. This way, we simplify reality by excluding it a priori any possible relationship between situational factors -more changeable and less predictable- and the individual, which can serve as an explanation for their behavior.
4. Confirmation bias
It happens by promoting, interpreting, and remembering information that confirms our own previous expectations and beliefs, thus overriding any other type of alternative explanation. We interpret reality selectively (as is the case with hindsight bias), ignoring facts and situations that do not support our preconceptions.
This error in reasoning has a very negative influence, for example, on the political and organizational spheres., Where it is common to have to mix several options in order to make the right decision.
5. Availability correction
It is the tendency to estimate the probability of an event based on the availability or frequency with which this event occurs in our mind through experience. For example, if in the media we are featured in the news every day and continually with home burglary news in the summer, our tendency will be to think that these events are happening constantly and more frequently than they actually do. They do it, as they will. to be more present in our memory than other objectively more frequent events.
- Bunge, M. and Ardila, R. (2002). Philosophy of psychology. Mexico: 21st century.
- Myers, David G. (2005). Psychology. Mexico: Pan-American medicine.