Imagine that after a few stressful weeks, you’ve finally arrived at your vacation spot: a beachside resort you booked online but have never seen in person.
How will this scenario play out? What are the odds that this hotel is a nightmare? A dream come true?
In person, the hotel is unexpectedly small and shabby and the ocean is nowhere to be seen.
Did you see that coming? Wasn’t it just bound to happen? It is often difficult to recall how we initially felt about an event or outcome, knowing what we know about how things turned out. Research on this phenomenon, dubbed ‘hindsight bias’, highlights three particular manifestations: the foreseeability impression (“I should have seen it coming”), the inevitability impression (“It was bound to happen, even if I couldn’t predict it”), and memory bias (remembering that you knew X before the fact, when you actually had no such knowledge).
In a series of studies published in Clinical Psychological Science, Julia Groß, Hartmut Blank, and Ute Bayen examined hindsight bias in a group of 75 students. The students heard 16 hypothetical situations one at a time—including the one at the top of this article—and imagined themselves in those scenarios. They rated how inevitable and foreseeable the outcome was before hearing how things turned out and again after. They tried to recall their initial inevitability and foreseeability ratings, and they reported how much regret, disappointment, joy, and pride they would feel.
The data revealed a link between hindsight bias and subjects’ symptoms of depression: Subjects with depressive symptoms rated negative outcomes as more inevitable and foreseeable relative to subjects with few symptoms. Those with higher depressive scores also reported feeling less responsible for positive outcomes and more responsible for negative outcomes.
“What surprised me most was that the results were so clear-cut and comprehensive,” said Julia Groß, researcher at the Institut für Experimentelle Psychologie at the Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf and first author on the paper. “A differentiated and balanced representation of one’s biography (i.e., with all its positive and negative life experiences) is tremendously important for mental health. A hindsight bias for negative life experiences may be a major obstacle to such a balanced view.”
Depression is characterized by negative thought patterns surrounding the so-called “cognitive triad”: the self, the present, and the future. This research suggests that negative thoughts about the past should also be included in this group.
“Our results suggest that hindsight bias is a core aspect of depressive cognition,” said Groß. “Psychotherapists should be attentive to hindsight bias, because it not only clouds the representation of the past but also impacts thinking about the future.”
In line with previous research, depression seemed to bias negative information specifically — subjects with depressive symptoms did not show hindsight bias in response to positive scenarios any more than people without depressive symptoms did.
The authors expected participants to overrate how foreseeable negative outcomes were, as this connotes a personal failing (“I should have known it would turn out poorly”). The inevitability result was harder to predict because, the scientists hypothesized, emphasizing that an outcome was inevitable could take some of the blame off oneself and lead to less shame or regret. The results, that people who reported more symptoms also rated the outcome as highly inevitable, may instead indicate a sense of helplessness in regards to a negative outcome.
“In depression, hindsight bias seems to be a further burden: It sustains depressive thinking by making only negative outcomes of events appear foreseeable and inevitable,” said Groß.
Subjects on the low end of the depressive spectrum showed a surprising turnaround, rating negative outcomes as hardly foreseeable and not inevitable. Previous research has established that highly surprising outcomes engender little hindsight bias. The current findings may indicate that those with mostly positive views of the past are genuinely surprised by negative outcomes. But it could also be that positive thinking is self-reinforcing, biasing hindsight toward lower foreseeability and inevitability and, ultimately, further positive thoughts.
Groß, J., Blank, H., Bayen, U. J. (2017). Hindsight bias in depression. Clinical Psychological Science doi:10.1177/2167702617712262.