Hindsight Bias: Understanding The Feeling & Using It Productively For Future Relationships

There is no such thing as water under the bridge when it comes to romance. A relationship entails a significant degree of investment on all fronts, which is why we tend to give it more credit than it merits both before and after a breakup. Reflecting on where a relationship went wrong helps us understand ourselves more and make better decisions moving forward. But hindsight isn't always the healthiest thing to do post-breakup.

After exiting a relationship, many of us fall into this destructive habit of rummaging through our memories to find all the red flags we think we missed and are not satisfied until we get our hands on the details that are remotely indicative of the romance's doomed fate. These include "he's always playing chess. Of course, he has the checkerboard mind of a manipulative narcissist," or "he's a Scorpio and I'm a Gemini. It's written in the stars that we wouldn't last."

All at once, every memory becomes a missed red flag under the breakup goggles. You convince yourself your relationship was doomed to fail and you knew it. Then, you start blaming yourself for not seeing it sooner and convince yourself you'll do better next time because you've developed a sixth sense for predicting if a relationship will work. If this is you, you're dealing with a psychological phenomenon known as hindsight bias. Here's what to know about it.

Hindsight bias is choosing to see the old in a new light

According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, hindsight bias is a psychological phenomenon that "occurs when outcome information distorts people's memories of past beliefs or exaggerates perceptions of outcomes' foreseeability or inevitability." In other words, people who engage in hindsight bias, when reflecting on an event in the past, convince themselves they knew something all along even though they couldn't. This "I knew it wouldn't last" mindset causes them to become overconfident in their ability to recognize patterns and predict the future, putting themselves at risk of making wrong decisions.

Hindsight bias is seen in many contexts, from relationships to investments to natural disasters. When an unfortunate event occurs abruptly, the natural human instinct is to find coherence and meaning in the happenstance in an effort to regain a sense of control and avoid going through the same problem again. People search high and low in their memory bank, cherry-picking details that match the event, connecting only the dots that make sense to them, thereby skewing their perception of the experience. As a result, they exaggerate the event's foreseeability. Although it's understandable for us to try to make sense of what happened, hindsight bias can cause us to have a negative, if not flawed, perception of our current or future relationships.

How to avoid hindsight bias

People who are most likely to engage in hindsight bias are those who evaluate everything through the lens of cause and effect and who find comfort in thinking everything is predictable. "He did this because I did that first," we think. The "you sow what you reap" principle doesn't always apply in relationships, though.

For instance, if you are a patient and loving person, how could you have predicted your partner would cheat on you? Then, you start convincing yourself that people walk all over you because you're too nice to them, and, as a result, you change 180 degrees when you enter a new relationship, thinking it should work this time. The truth is, life per se can be hit and miss, and there's no way to tell what's ahead.

One way to deal with hindsight bias is to consider alternative scenarios to acquire a more realistic, balanced picture of the situation. A big part of hindsight is drawing a conclusion from selective memories. You can prevent all the second-guessing and revisioning by having a journal where you keep a regular record of the good, the bad, and the ugly memories so you can revisit the entries to ensure you're seeing an accurate reflection on a past event. The idea is similar to that of a serendipity journalCheck out some tips to help you get started. This will help you learn from your mistakes and make better decisions moving forward.