Behavioral Science as a lens to solve problems: Why Hindsight Bias isn’t 20/20, and what is a better frame

Feb 21, 2024

Upon reading Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and finally understanding the central idea, Thomas Henry Huxley reportedly said to himself, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that”¹.

But yet, he didn’t think of it.

The common saying goes that “hindsight is 20/20”. In hindsight, everything just seems so straightforward and obvious, and we feel we should have been able to see it in advance.

The obviousness of hindsight isn’t just about recognizing the solution to a problem, but also in recognizing a problem to begin with. Perhaps you once dated someone who was a terrible choice for you. As you look back and reflect on the relationship, the warning signs were all there. How could you be so dumb? How could you overlook what was so obvious?

The obviousness of both problems and solutions in hindsight can be a source of doubt for Behavioral Scientists. You look back at all the work you did to change your population’s behavior, and you realize that all you did was make things a little easier. Shouldn’t it have been obvious to do that in the first place? Why did it take so much time and effort to do the obvious thing?

The feeling that a now past problem, outcome, or decision was obvious is not just a popular aphorism but also an empirical phenomenon studied under the label of Hindsight Bias². Oftentimes, when we look to the past, we invent explanations for why something happened, or feel we “knew it all along”. But this is a false sense of knowledge that cannot be relied on, which is where the “bias” comes in.

However, and perhaps more interestingly, hindsight isn’t always a bias. Sometimes, the obviousness that comes with hindsight just means you did the work to look at the problem in a way that surfaced the most appropriate solution.

In psychology, this is called framing, but in the domain of Behavioral Science, we borrow from Michael Hallsworth’s metaphor and call this using Behavioral Science as a lens.

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