When I was teaching philosophy, one of the hardest things for my students to wrap their heads around was the concept of unintended consequences.
This came up whenever we discussed the theory of Utilitarianism. According to a Utilitarian, the best ethical decision is the one that results in the best outcomes; that is, the highest levels of happiness and pleasure for everyone involved.
The problem is that, even with the best intentions, things don’t always turn out as planned. An action meant to help can harm. An action done for selfish reasons can end up benefiting others. The success or failure of our decisions can depend on factors we haven’t considered or even imagined.
My students (perhaps because of their youth) had trouble with the idea that the best-laid plans could go wrong. The flip-side of this difficulty is hindsight bias. This is the prejudice that, when something goes wrong, we should have been able to predict it in advance.
We see this kind of “Monday morning quarterbacking” all the time. After a terrorist attack, an unexpected election result, or other unforeseen events, all kinds of people step forward to say that they saw it coming all along.
What happens is that we treat the information we have as though it is all the information there is. Then we construct a story in which various participants made bad decisions. We forget that we don’t have full information, and that the success and failure of decisions are likely attributable to factors we haven’t considered.
The (somewhat chilling) reality is that we may never know why our actions have the consequences that they do. Accidents happen and people get lucky. Just because things have gone poorly doesn’t mean that we can trace events back to a particular decision. (Conversely, just because things go well doesn’t mean that we can always take credit.)
Making it Relevant
Hindsight bias affects our evaluation of our past actions, rather than decision making in the moment. When evaluating past decisions, it is good to try to learn from your mistakes and especially to spot patterns of thought that might be holding you back. But be compassionate with yourself. Just because things have gone wrong, doesn’t mean that your decision was flawed.
Daniel Khaneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, Doubleday, 2011.
Note: Most of us make a huge number of decisions each day. A few are momentous; most seem trivial at the time. And yet trivial decisions, made over and over, can take on huge significance. This is the fourth in an occasional series on the psychology (and philosophy) of decision making. I’m interested in this topic because in my work as a mediator I help people make good decisions (or at least, understand the implications of their decisions).
About the Image: An emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) looking backwards, at Auckland Zoo by Avenue (Wikimedia Commons).