Neal Roese: "We Never Saw It Coming": The Psychology of Missed Predictions
The election of 2012 has gone from being an eagerly anticipated future event to history. The re-election of Barack Obama on November 6, 2012, was watched by people all over the globe and talked about it ever since. To look across the news media and blogosphere in the days since is to see a wide range of explanation as to exactly why the election turned out as it did. Some explain the election in terms of ethnic demographics, and the volume and venom of campaign attack ads, and even hurricane Sandy. Most everyone who is writing about the election claims to know exactly why the election turned out as it did.
The certainty of these explanations embodies what psychologists call hindsight bias - the tendency to feel like you know it all along after an event becomes known. We recently published a scholarly review of research on hindsight spanning psychology, law, medicine, and economics. Hindsight bias usually takes the form of looking back at particular past events and inflating how probable it was for it to occur (say, going from a belief that there is a 60 percent chance of the outcome occurring before the outcome is known to an 80 percent chance after). Hindsight bias makes your memory of the past seem more knowable than it felt to you at the time.
Psychological research has shown that hindsight bias gets bigger when people feel that they have a good explanation for what has occurred. The clearer the story, and the easier it is to connect characters to plot lines, the larger the hindsight bias. Most people try to find a single, credible story to help make sense of particular big events in life, and hindsight bias is part of this quest for meaning...