Smarter Looking Back: Hindsight Bias in Sports and School

Sometimes in basketball, after a fake and a drive that lead to an easy lay-up and two points, the defender who got fooled says of the successful drive, “I knew he was going to do that.” Maybe the defender knew and maybe he didn’t. (Forgive me, ladies, for sticking with the male pronoun in this example; I’m thinking of my own basketball days.)

tennisIn tennis, professionals sometimes have to make a guess as to whether their opponent is going to go cross or down the line. In a fast-paced hard-hitting game (say, against a Williams sister), you don’t always have time to wait and see – you have to start moving. A player who guesses wrong might say, “I knew she was going to do that.” Maybe the player knew and maybe she didn’t. It does beg the question, though, that if she knew, then why did she go the other way and lose the point.

In school, on tests, sometimes students change their answers from the correct to an incorrect choice. Upon learning of the mistake, my students sometimes say, “I knew the answer – I don’t know why I changed it.” Sure, sometimes that can be true. By the way, popular student wisdom says not to change your answers, but it probably doesn’t matter for most students. Research shows that, if anything, changing your answer probably leads to a higher test score (e.g., Di Milia, 2007).


This phenomenon, of looking back and wondering why you chose a certain action when you now feel it was kind of obvious you should’ve chosen differently, is part of hindsight bias (aka the I-knew-it-all-along effect, though some researchers don’t like this flashier-sounding label). The football phrase for hindsight bias is Monday-morning quarterbacking. South Park illustrates this bias in its off-center South-Park way: If curious, click on the YouTube link below (or enter “South Park hindsight” in YouTube)…

The hindsight bias literature has many other and more serious and complicated examples, including in medicine and business (e.g., Pezzo, 2011; Roese & Vohs, 2012). The bottom line is that, on average, we overestimate after the fact how much we knew. Events feel more predictable after the outcome is known than before.

The cause of this bias (as with many biases) can be cognitive or motivational. In other words, the cause can be due to basic brain wiring (cognitive processes such as memory) or due to a less-than-conscious desire to see ourselves as more intelligent or to see the world as more orderly than is justified.

(Don’t forget: Biases usually occur just on average. Some of us look back and correctly assess what we knew. Some of us are not biased in this way. But beware the above-average effect – most of us think we’re above average in good ways and that we’re not the biased ones. It’s as if we say to ourselves, “That bias only occurs on average, but I’m above average.” Be careful. Most of us think we’re above average, but it cannot be most of us who are unbiased if the bias occurs on average. Try to be open to the possibility that you are average. Sorry, it had to be said. 🙂 [See Pledge #1.])



Di Milia, L. (2007). Benefiting from multiple-choice exams: The positive impact of answer switching. Educational Psychology, 27, 607-615.

Pezzo, M. V. (2011). Hindsight bias: A primer for motivational researchers. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5, 665-678.

Roese, N. J., & Vohs, K. D. (2012). Hindsight bias. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 411-426.


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