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Why the public sector should be wary of hindsight bias

Jenna Collins


Hindsight bias is when we justify something unexpected as if we knew it was going to happen all along. We’ve all done it: framing a mistake, a crisis or an intervention in a way that fits our own narrative and how we see the world. After the event has happened, we choose which dots to join up that made the whole thing, in hindsight, so ‘obvious’.

Roese and Vohs (2012) define three types of hindsight bias:

  1. Memory distortion – ‘I clearly remember thinking this would happen’
  2. Inevitability – ‘It was clearly going to happen’
  3. Foreseeability – ‘I could have seen this coming’

The problem with hindsight bias is that it impacts our ability to genuinely learn from our mistakes because we already know of the consequences. It can lead to oversimplification of cause and effect.

For the public sector, it is important to bear in mind the power of hindsight bias because learning from our mistakes is so critical right now. As local government reinvents itself, new models of delivery, service re-design, ways of working etc are being tried and tested. We can’t afford to waste these learning opportunities and therefore should not jump to conclusions about why something failed. It’s certainly something my colleagues at IMPOWER have to think about when we design and run behavioural trials.

To overcome hindsight bias, Roese and Vohs suggest considering events that didn’t happen, but could’ve happened, and understanding the reasons why it could’ve happened. With our Target Demand Model, IMPOWER are doing some pretty sophisticated modelling to try and do exactly this. If demand for services – adult and children’s social care in particular – continues to increase at current rates, we have the tools and data see what will happen before it happens. I guess in this sense the sector is lucky: in many ways we already have the ‘inevitability’ and ‘foreseeability’ at our disposal. We just need to use this insight to change the outcome, rather than using it (and our hindsight bias) to justify the unthinkable from happening: the failure of public services.

photo credit: DSC_0069.jpg via photopin (license)

Written by

Jenna Collins



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