11/25/2012 05:58 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2013

'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.

In a blog that we wrote a couple of weeks before the election, we described hindsight bias in terms of the difficulty people have in recalling their prior uncertainty. At the exact moment that we wrote our blog, Romney and Obama were tied in the popular vote, and we noted that "there has probably not been such a moment of such perfect uncertainty since the start of the election season." Just a few weeks ago, it was really hard to know what would happen on November 6. But now we all know. And it's rather hard now to remember what we were so uncertain about. With all the explanations by pundits and analysts, isn't pretty obvious why Obama won and Romney lost? Hindsight bias abounds.

But there is one interesting exception, a case when hindsight bias seems not only to be absent, but even reversed. This is the case of "we never saw it coming." Faced with an event that negative -- a defeat or a failure -- a person may claim it to be completely unpredictable, that no one could possibly have seen it coming. Psychologists have studied this reverse hindsight bias, and one explanation centers on how much people feel that they were in the driver's seat. If you're driving and you get into an accident, it may be partly your fault and partly someone else's fault, but because you had your hands on the wheel, you could at least have done something. You had a bit of control over the outcome; you had a bit of room to inject your own personal initiative into the situation. The more that you felt that you were in the driver's seat, then the more you'll worry (unconsciously or not) that other people might blame you for what happened. If others can find fault in your actions, your brain works overtime to make excuses to protect you from blame. By saying that "no one" could have seen it coming, you have found one way to make it seem that you are above blame. If no one could see it coming, then no one could possibly have done anything more than you did to avoid it.

You can now see that if there is anyone who might show a reverse hindsight bias after the 2012 election, it would be Republicans in general and people in the Romney camp in particular. A Slate article appeared on November 9 entitled, quite pointedly, "Romney never saw it coming." The article quoted a Romney strategist on the strength of African American voter turnout in Ohio, which went from 11 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2012: "We could never see that coming. We thought they'd gotten a lot last time." Another Republican, Minnesota state representative Jim Abeler echoed, "Nobody saw it coming."

Of course, there is great variability across people in their forecasting prowess. Some people truly did not see it coming. Others, meanwhile, did a very good job of seeing it coming (just ask Nate Silver). For most of us in the middle, however, there is a general tendency to misremember our past selves as being better predictors than actually was the case. But this general tendency to feel like we knew it all along can sometimes reverse, and this is most likely to happen when a) the outcome is a defeat or failure, and b) the person in question was in a position to shape the outcome. Next time you hear a decision maker claim never to have seen it coming, you'll recognize it as reverse hindsight bias, operating in order to avoid blame.

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