Dealing with hindsight-bias: Or, how to avoid people telling you that it wasn’t that hard to do once they hear the solution.

“Logic is an organized way of going wrong with confidence.”
Kettering’s Law in “The Number of the Beast” by Robert A. Heinlein

Creativity is often easy once you know the solution. It seems obvious, like it couldn’t be done any other way. There’s a word for this phenomenon (actually, two words): “hindsight bias” (also known as “the knew-it-all-along effect”). And it can be a bitch if you want recognition for your creative work — and let’s be honest here, who doesn’t?

But there’s an easy way to prevent it: don’t tell ’em.

It only becomes obvious once they know the solution, so don’t tell ’em the solution, not yet. If you are doing a presentation, let them try to figure it out first. Get them to state a few ‘interesting’ ideas that go in a completely wrong direction. Let them bang their head against the wall for a while.

Then tell them.

There are some striking apocryphal and (probably) true examples of this strategy, the most famous probably being the “Egg of Columbus“. BTW, this legend was beautifully captured in a Walt Disney comic — German version — here and here — just for illustration purposes. Ah, childhood heros. BTW, actually, it is possible to do so without any tricks, I achieved it in 2011 — it was a remarkable egg (but it tasted just like any other egg).

It can even be enforced. There’s the case of a scientist who found out that patients get better more quickly when they are released earlier. This is an explosive issue for medical doctors, who have to accept that their patients fare best when they are not around, and for hospital administrators, who lose the profitable days when they turn into an overpriced hotel with an five-icicle rating.

So, he presented his findings saying that the patients got worse when they were released earlier. He made sure to ask the assembled audience whether he could have made a mistake in his methodology that would ‘explain away’ these striking differences between the two groups. The audience, esp. the MDs, disagreed: There was no other explanation. The method was solid, the only interpretation that made sense was that the early release group really did fare worse, nothing else could explain it and there was no ambiguity in the data. In fact, it was unethical to have released them early given how well they could have fared if they had just stayed in the hospital.

Once he got their consent that the methods and analysis were solid, he said he was terribly sorry, but he had made a mistake with coding the two groups — the groups were actually coded the other way around. The group of patients how did worse were not the ones who were released early, they were the ones who stayed in the hospital, and vice versa.

Nasty? Yup, indeed, but needed. Otherwise, they would have never accepted the data, which were pretty unambiguous, and patient’s health would have continued to suffer.

So, if you ever need people to accept that you have made a contribution don’t tell them the result. Let them guess. Let them get wrong with confidence. You might even lead them astray — describe what should have worked and let them guess why it did not. Then show them how unpredictable reality was and how creative your solution really is.

Frequently, this is the only way to get them to accept “reality” — including that you did some pretty impressive work.

2 Comments

  1. Hey, I was wondering if I could look at the work of this scientist myself because I think it would be an interesting story to use in a presentation. Is there any way you could contact me with your source?

    Thanks

  2. Hoi,

    I would love to, but I’m not sure where I have heard it, although I am pretty sure that it was a TED talk (rather old one). If I remember it, I’ll post the link.

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