Hindsight Bias

Hindsight is the retrospective view of events and how they unfolded; hindsight 
bias describes overestimation of how easy it should have been to be successful 
and oversimplification of what should have been done (Fischoff 1975; Hawkins 
& Hastie 1990). This has been a particularly prominent issue in counterterrorism 
operations which often result in post-operational reviews, frequently with some 
degree of political motivation. Such reviews are likely to be affected by hindsight 
bias, in which it is difficult, and arguably impossible, to ignore the effect of later 
information on a decision made in the absence of that information. Hindsight 
bias has been a significant public issue in cases such as the London bombings 
and the Haneef case, where—with the benefit of hindsight—commentators 
have been extremely critical of the police response. This has impacted on the 
procedures, policies and practices of future operations and thus is of critical 
Hawkins, SA & Hastie, R 1990, ‘Hindsight: biased judgments of past events 
after the outcomes are known’, Psychological Bulletin, vol. 107, no. 5, pp. 

This is pretty standard academic consideration of hindsight.  Cops often have to make decisions without full evidence and I’m sympathetic to claims that their actions are often viewed by hindsight clowns.  The presence of this bias does not mean mistakes don’t happen and hindsight bias can be overcome.  Generally we would look at the ‘protocols’ of how bias in decision making was ruled out as far as possible.  The following is an example:

Eight systematic steps that can be applied to an analytical problem to encourage good 
1. identifying different hypotheses about what is happening in the domain 
of interest. Heuer suggests that the more uncertain a situation is, and the 
greater the impact of a decision, the more alternative scenarios should be 
2. making a list of the significant evidence and arguments for each hypothesis 
3. refining the hypotheses into a matrix with evidence that is assessed for the 
degree to which it supports the arguments 
4. deleting the evidence that has no diagnostic value 
5. developing tentative conclusions about the relative likelihood of each 
hypothesis and trying to find evidence to disprove hypotheses rather than 
proving them 
6. assessing the sensitivity of the conclusions to a few sources of evidence, 
with the implication being that if those sources of evidence are incorrect 
or subject to a different interpretation then the conclusions may be wrong 
7. reporting conclusions that will include not only the most likely conclusion 
but also alternatives 
8. articulating what evidence should be collected in the future to ensure that 
their assessments are not being deviated from.

We now know from Operation Crevice (the dorks with the huge bag of fertiliser) that two of the London bombers were followed from London to Leeds before dropping off the radar (one was cropped out of a photograph sent to the Americans and might have been recognised there).  The hindsight excuse has been used on this, but this covers another failing – that of lack of resources.  The terrorist threat is supposedly still with us, we know this mistake was made because of resource prioritising, yet we can ‘afford’ to slash police numbers?  One might think a case could be made for redirected our ‘slashed coppers’.  One can already sense in ‘pre-hindsight’ the excuses politicians will make if there is another outrage.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s