Learning from the past—it’s the reasonable thing to do to improve and make progress. It turns out though, that its merit may well depend on what exactly we learn, since “looking back” is not without its downfall. Cue in hindsight bias.
“We tend to have two problems when we try to ‘predict’ the past: (1) believing that, at least in retrospect, it can be seen that events could not have turned out other than they did; and (2) even thinking that in fact one easily could have predicted [in advance] that events would have turned out as they did.”
The first pertains to the belief of the “inevitability” of certain events, which influences the mind to think of the cause and effects to describe this inevitability. Then, convinced of this causal relationship, the second follows. Applying the causal relationship, one should have known that the event would certainly happen. The problem with this is, it’s a fallacy. Nisbett continues to describe that certain cultural paradigms have greater tendencies to commit this fallacy, but more on that later in future posts.
Hindsight bias is what leads to phrases like “I knew it all along” or “I knew from before that this would happen.” Ironically, the people who commit this fallacy may sound like experts, gifted with certain prescience of events, and may become the go-to sources for future predictions. You’ve seen them on TV—people get over-credited for predictive knowledge because they say so-and-so should have known and done something so this other thing would have happened. The key illusion here is the belief that they understand the past–they have a model to explain the past–which they use to predict the future, while in fact they understand the past much less than they think they do.
“A general limitation of the human mind is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past states of knowledge, or beliefs that have changed. Once you adopt a new view of the world (or of any part of it), you immediately lost much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed.”
He continues to describe a psychology experiment to illustrate this point:
“Choosing a topic on which minds are not completely made up–say, the death penalty–the experimenter carefully measures people’s attitudes. Next, the participants see or hear a persuasive pro or con message. Then the experimenter measures people’s attitudes again; they usually are closer to the persuasive message they were exposed to. Finally, the participants report the opinion they held beforehand. This task turns out to be surprisingly difficult. Asked to reconstruct their former beliefs, people retrieve their current ones instead–an instance of substitution–and many cannot believe that they ever felt differently.”
Because the mind has a hard time reproducing its less knowledgeable state, over-simplification of the past or overconfidence happens.
“Your inability to reconstruct past beliefs will inevitably cause you to underestimate the extent to which you were surprised by past events.”
The less knowledgeable me saw things as complicated. But once I know, I couldn’t believe that a previous me ever thought things as complicated. It seems like there’s a limit to sympathy with my old self.
Our relationship with the past and future is very interesting. We know that the future is uncertain. I, right now, have many choices that could result in a plethora of outcomes. But I can only make one choice, and thus as I traverse through time, I will only have one version of history. Looking forward, I see a spectrum of possibilities, but looking back, I see only one. The fallacy arises if I believe that because I only see one history in my past, it is the only one version that could have happened while in fact, if I return to that point, just like my presence, I would have multiple choices as well. Other outcomes were just as probable.
This asymmetry of our perceptions with respect to time is a warning when we learn from the past since “the tendency to revise the history of one’s beliefs in light of what actually happened produces a robust cognitive illusion.” The lessons learned, or our model of what happened in the past, may be influenced by this bias, which may produce a story that’s too clean and tidy compared to reality.
Event A and B at two different times
Perception at time A. A range of possibilities of outcomes, of which B is an instance.
Perception at time B, the belief that A to B is inevitable.
When Experience Works Against You
Our view of the past influences our perception of the future. If our model of the past is too straightforward, we may be tempted to extrapolate the same behavior in the future and oversimplify, which can be serious if you were a decision maker. The failure to consider various possibilities of outcomes can lead to incorrect estimation of risks and failure to mitigate. But even if you weren’t a decision maker, the loss from hindsight bias, to me, is its opportunity cost. The disbelief that the future could not turn out another way may prevent you from exploring creative options.
In many areas of life, experience is highly valued in considering someone’s suitability for a job, rightly so. Experience can also be described as the quantity of past events in someone’s repertoire. It’s how much history he has in a particular area. It does not always mean that the person is older, although in most cases it correlates strongly with age.
For a job that requires expertise, experience is a definitely an advantage. Sometimes, though, a task requires creativity, innovation, new ways of looking at and doing things. For this type of work, experience may mean that the person’s mental model may be too rigid and solidified to consider alternatives.
I’ve been on both sides of this fallacy, both as the guilty party and the victim of hindsight bias. As the guilty one, I’ve said things like, “I knew all along this would work or that wouldn’t work out” and giving suggestions like “I’ve tried that, it didn’t work so don’t bother trying.” The root issue is believing that the cause and effect are clear, discounting other factors that also play big roles. Maybe sometimes it helps the recipients of this ‘advice’, but what if it’s actually misdirection?
As a victim of hindsight bias, I’ve been on the other side of experts and been told not to hope too much from a certain pursuit, or that my idea won’t work because it’s always done in certain ways. But because I don’t have much pre-knowledge, I’m less constrained to think in their ways and more motivated to pursue alternate ideas. When it comes to thinking divergently, which I believe is necessary in making progress that’s a leap rather than incremental, there’s an advantage to being young and inexperienced.
Is there an escape from hindsight bias? I would think so. A conscientious approach to detect hindsight bias in ourselves may fix it and free us from limiting/false models from the past, and acknowledge the statistical nature of our world. But if Kahneman’s right, that our brain cannot fully sympathize with its less knowledgeable version in the past, maybe we cannot overcome hindsight bias 100% internally.
Which is why it’s great that there are other people, and sometimes a new person for in a position or as a leader is the best way to bring in new approaches, new visions, and new solutions. There’s a quote a movie that I love, “We are too young to realize that certain things are impossible…so we will do them anyway.” If we can be the one saying this, then great! But if it so happens that we can’t, then maybe we should at least have someone else in the team who can still say those words, and counteract our hindsight bias.
If wonder is the beginning of wisdom, perhaps reflection is the other bookend, the process by which we form thoughts, shape opinions, and reach conclusions on the things we learn.
If I Could Do School Over
If I were to re-do my schooling—I wouldn’t—I would take more time to reflect. Here’s why. Throughout the years of formal education, I tended to do better in final exams than in midterms, because I learned the most when studying for finals. The distinct difference here was the scope of the materials. During finals, I studied the entire curriculum for a given subject, which gave me a narrative of the past semester.
Having this big-picture view, I finally understood the context of each individual lesson, why we went through certain subjects, and how they connected to other topics in the class. I knew this then and I know it now: I was always a big-picture learner. I could grasp knowledge better if I knew its context, as if fitting it to a larger puzzle in my mind.
In my field, most classes involved solving problems with a multitude of equations. During the semester, it was easy to get lost in what the lecture covered at a particular moment, since the equations looked similar from week to week. How did week 5’s problem differ from week 4? Since the lectures went over nuances of similar problems, it could be hard to discern the differences in real time.
It also didn’t help that during lectures, I was too busy copying notes from the board, limiting my attention to the essence of the lecture.
But all of these fragmented pieces would come together beautifully during finals (and often not before this). I now understood how to apply the equations in the appropriate time and situation. I could understand the problem formulation, the principles that applied to it, and the method to solve it. This integration, to me, was the pinnacle of learning. I finally grasped what I studied.
Yet, truthfully, I did not have to wait until finals for this knowledge-alignment to happen. It could have taken place throughout the semester; I just did not have the wisdom to try seeing the big picture. If I could do school over, I would reflect more to understand the context of what I learned each day.
The Growth of the Mind
In Before Learning, I mentioned Mortimer Adler’s—author of How to Read a Book—definition of learning as the process by which the gap or inequality between the mind of the teacher and the student is closed. Once this gap is closed, though, equality is reached, and a learner can then evaluate and judge the situation for herself. She may agree or disagree with the teacher, fully or partially. The bottom line is, this post-learning experience is a crucial part in independent thinking–to think for oneself and not be a mere reflector of other people’s thoughts.
In reflection, we organize knowledge into a mental framework or worldview. Perhaps before, we only knew one side of an argument, but after learning, we see another side and gain perspective on our original position. Perhaps we gain wider horizons on how the world works. A life of continual learning means a continual shifting of this mental structure, not always drastically, but a shift nonetheless. This is the growth of the mind.
The pace of schooling these days could well prevent a student from integrating all these bits of knowledge into a coherent set of insights, if she didn’t take time to reflect. Thus, I’m advocating a carving out of time to do this slow thinking in one’s life schedule.
Contextualization and Connection
Personally, reflection is about two things: contextualization and connection.
Contextualization is about understanding the bigger picture, the context in which a particular subject resides. It’s about answering these questions: Why is this subject important? What problem does it address? What problems does it not address? Are there limitations to its proposed solutions?
Usually, this bigger context is a real life issue. In scientific journal papers, the biggest context is usually the introductory paragraph, big statements like curing cancer, solving the energy problem, etc. The subject matter that we study, though, is usually a subset of a subset of the solutions, meaning that there is a cascade of contexts between the biggest picture and our subject matter. Developing this mental framework takes time, but will distinguish those who excel in understanding from regular learners.
Connection is about linking the subject matter to other adjacent topics within the same context. How does this material connect with what I already know? Does it complement, expand, or contradict my previous understanding? How about its relationship with other approaches or propositions? What other disciplines are relevant to this subject?
This approach applies some divergent thinking. It would also help prevent thinking about something in a single narrative.
Maybe there is one more dimension to reflection worth adding here. It’s personalization—how does this learning change me as a person? Am I different? What would I do differently given this new understanding?
Reflect to Gain Wisdom
There are ways to develop a habit of reflection in life. I’d like to suggest here a few tips on how to do this practically.
For students, reflect often on what you learned in class that day. Do it often, daily or weekly (monthly or quarterly is too long, in my opinion). Pushing it further, write down your thoughts—a line or two—each time. This will help you retain information.
When the quarter or semester is over, ask yourself, what new understanding did you gain compared to the previous semester? How did the class connect to other subjects? Concurrently, this reflection would also help you find interests and explore a potential career in the future.
For the general population, take time to ask yourself, have I learned anything recently? Am I growing? Are my skills developing? Without the structure of formal education, we can get lost in just doing the same things week by week, month by month, and year by year. It’s important to take stock on our growth process in all aspects of life and work.
For readers, after reading a book, ask the following questions:
– What did the author propose?
– What problem did he address? What didn’t he address?
– What truths are proposed in the book?
– Do I agree, fully or partially? When does that truth apply, and when does it not apply?
– How am I changed as a result of reading this book?
Taking the time to do this instead of rushing to another book will help you remember the content of the book longer. Adler’s books, for example, influenced me in formalizing a structure of post-learning reflection to enhance wisdom. It taught me that there’s work to be done before and after reading a book, and that I am obligated to form an opinion/position.
Reflection is key in the art of self-learning, serving as guideposts to keep us both motivated and self-aware. If I could share one tenet to live by as a learner, it would be this: Study to be smarter, Reflect to be wiser.
This article is the fourth of an essay series on worldview, titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first here, the second here, and the third here.
In the wonders of living, experiences that seemingly contradict each other can co-exist at once. Multiple thoughts and feelings happen at an instant, and while deconstructing them one by one is an interesting academic exercise, it does not fully reflect the unity of the experience as a whole.
Once Upon a Shark Encounter
Recently, for the first time ever, I swam with sharks in the wild. My first encounter was at a site that was not supposed to be a shark site, but I saw a juvenile shark that came by a few times. From a distance, I could see something white and flat approaching. I thought, That’s either a white string ray, unlikely, or the belly of a shark. Sure enough, it was the latter, and also the main reason I went to the Bahamas.
Was it scary? A little bit, sure, for I know what a shark could do when unhappy. My worry grew as it came closer, but more importantly, my excitement, too, grew. It was so graceful, beautiful, and wonderful, and the contours of their fins looked amazing against the blue vista.
The video below was one of the times it swam by.
Later on, we went to the shark arena, a spot where many Caribbean reef sharks gathered. Here, a group of us floated on the surface, holding on to a rope as precaution and watching about 30 sharks swim 20-feet below. We were instructed to stay still so as to not look like a distressed fish and attract the sharks, not necessarily because they would eat us—humans are not usually on their menu items—but because they were curious creatures. My husband and I were the first ones in and last ones out, although it was still too short for my taste.
Wonder and Fear
On land, we’re preconditioned to fear sharks. (Think Jaws.) Certainly, it was not possible to leave these thoughts behind while we were in the water. But this feeling of fear was not the only one present during those moments. Rather, there was also awe and love and wonder. As for me, I could not get enough of it. We were too far up and it was hard to see their full physiques. One day, I would get closer.
If I were to be academic about it, I could try to analyze the experience and breakdown each component of my feelings. On wonder, what made me admire the creatures? What was it about this experience that impressed me? On fear, what made me worry about my safety? On paper, these two things seem to belong to separate categories, one a positive feeling and the other one negative. And I could say of this experience, “It was amazing,” or, “It was scary” as a single statement, and it would be fully justified.
But in reality, they were there together in the same experience. The two feelings were interwoven, like two threads that made up a piece of fabric, such that I couldn’t separate which moments were fearful and which were wonderful.
Such is life. In nature, the things that amaze us are often the same things that can cause fear. Of cliffs and rocks and mountains, grand and capable of destruction (or you could fall off them). Of the ocean, expansive and vast and dark and mysterious. Of creatures, beautiful and fierce. Many grand things have latent danger in them, and it’s perfectly natural to both love and fear them at the same time.
What Overcomes Fear
Yet there is another aspect that brings this seemingly paradoxical experience to the next level. When I see shark divers, conservationists who swim with sharks in such close proximities and interact with them so naturally, they seem to have no fear of sharks whatsoever. They could do this because they love these sharks. My wonder may lead me to 20-feet away, but their love brings them much closer.
I don’t think this is just a function of their courage. In their interaction, they are respectful and careful. There are boundaries that they honor between them and the creatures, an implicit covenant between human and fish that they would only admire and not harm each other. Certainly, they could not remain safe if they harassed these sharks. After all, the underwater world is the sharks’ home turf.
Love casts out fear, someone said. I think its truth is evident in this situation. Nothing changes in the sharks themselves; they still have the potential to be dangerous, especially when their boundaries are crossed. But this does not prevent the interaction between humans and animals, because love gets rid of the fear and makes room for a connection between beings.