“Hindsight Bias” by Alex Hwang

Adele Bloch, Author

The Paly Voice acquired the following Graduation speech from its author, with the authors consent to publish. Student speaker senior Alex Hwang delivered this speech at Graduation on June 3. The views stated in these speeches do not necessarily reflect the views of The Paly Voice, nor those of its staff.

“Hindsight Bias” by Alex Hwang

At the beginning of this year, my lovely AP Psychology teacher, Ms. Mattes, walked into the classroom and said “Good Morning!” in her usual cheerful voice. She then curiously proceeded to pass out a bunch of half-sheets of paper to our class. She told us to read what the piece of paper said and follow the instructions on it. Simple enough, right? So once she passed me mine, I read it and, at the top, it said: “People with high self-confidence are more susceptible to flattery than those with low self-confidence.” Makes sense! Then I read the question on the paper: did I agree or disagree with the finding? I agreed. Now the paper asked: please explain why this finding is true. I had no trouble stating that “obviously, people with high self-confidence must have cultivated this attitude by buying in to the flattery they’ve received.” And that was it. I looked up at Ms. Mattes to show that I was done, and soon my whole class did the same.

Ms. Mattes then asked us: “how many of you agree with this finding?” and we all raised our hands. “How many of you had no trouble explaining this finding?” she asked. Again, we all raised our hands. But here comes the twist. Ms. Mattes asked someone from the other side of the classroom to read their half-sheet out loud: (listen carefully) “People with low self-confidence are more susceptible to flattery than those with high self-confidence.” Everyone on my side of the class suddenly groaned. Did you catch it? To the other half of the class, Ms. Mattes passed out the exact opposite finding, yet we were all equally able to agree with and support our own findings. Each one of us in the classroom believed that our own explanations represented simple common sense.

So don’t get me wrong, I love Ms. Mattes, but she duped us, and she did so with a phenomenon called hindsight bias. According to our beloved AP Psychology textbook, hindsight bias is defined as “the tendency to believe after learning an outcome that one would’ve foreseen it.” You might have also heard of it as the “I-knew-it-all-along effect” or, simply, “hindsight is 20/20.” Introduced to us as a danger when analyzing experimental studies, hindsight bias can actually be found everywhere around us.

In interpreting history — how often have we heard that a victory in a certain battle or election was “inevitable”? In sports — how many times have you heard the announcer declare how obvious it was that the team would win…but only after they had won? Even in relationships — “Oh yeah, I knew they would break up.” But most pertinent to us all today is in the way we look at our times at Paly. All of us, at some point, have thought along the lines of “Oh, Of course, I didn’t get into that school because I didn’t have this or that on my resume.” “I shouldn’t have done that activity, I obviously wouldn’t have liked it and I shouldn’t have wasted my time.” Taking a step back, it’s easy to see why these thoughts represent hindsight bias. Did you really know such things all along? Probably not. Looking back into the past, we see our lives as easily predictable. Unfortunately, thinking this way encourages the notion that each decision we make has a sense of cold, deterministic certainty.

In the same vein, as we all move on to our bright futures, let’s not allow this natural human tendency of hindsight bias to morph into a sort of foresight bias — we shouldn’t be tempted to feel that our future lives can be predicted. Rather, we should dare to take a step that leads us down an unpredictable path. We should dare to venture boldly into the unknown and have the audacity to act with the knowledge that there is no certain path from the present… to the future.

Four years ago, at my eighth grade graduation, I confidently stated exactly what defined “success” and the way each one of us would achieve it in high school. I talked about how “success is found in how we stick to our beliefs.” I threw out even more cliches. I even used some vague quote about success from a man I didn’t know one thing about. One of my great heroes, Mr. Bungarden, would probably have something to say about this. Mr. Bungarden recently told me that “nothing is scarier than an 18-year-old who has ‘figured out’ life.” And at that moment as a 14-year-old atop the podium at the end of 8th grade, I certainly thought that I had figured out life. But now I’m a little wiser than I was then, and Mr. Bungarden, you were right. Five, fifteen, or fifty years in the future, let’s look back without hindsight bias, without believing that our lives were predictable. We all have some of the most exciting years and exciting choices of our life to come. Our futures have nothing determined about them. PALY Class of 2015, it’s time to embrace this uncertainty without hindsight bias, without foresight bias, but with every sense of bold possibility. Thank you very much everybody!