"Fifteen hundred years ago, everyone knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everyone knew the world was flat and fifteen minute ago, you knew that people were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.” – Agent K, Men in Black
Question: In a poll in early 1989, what percentage of West Germans’ believed the Berlin Wall would fall during their lifetimes?
The answer is three percent. And yet today if you were to listen to the average historian explain the demise of communism and its impact on the Berlin Wall, the “fall of the wall” is often described as inevitable. This ability to retroactively construct detailed and plausible conclusions about the “destiny” of past events is referred to as a “hindsight bias.”
The problem with history is that while it flows forward, it is studied backwards. Consider, for example, the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand. It is the event now generally accepted as having triggered the First World War. At the time, the average European citizen scarcely attached any significance to the event. (This is known because if people had suspected the assassination’s calamitous impact on Europe’s economy this pessimism would have been reflected in a steep decline in the bond prices on various European stock markets. This didn’t occur.)
One way to unlearn our tendency for hindsight bias is to create a future bias and attempt to forecast events before they occur. As part of this strategy it is recommended you keep a journal to record the accuracy of your forecasts.
Be forewarned, this is likely to be a humbling exercise.
Consider the case the U.S. Cavalry, which in 1882, was charged with resuscitating Yellowstone Park’s gaming population. After implementing policies to protect against poachers and instituting generous feeding programs, the park’s elk population predictably swelled. Their numbers ultimately grew so large that the elk began overgrazing and eating aspen trees. This unforeseen consequence deprived the beavers of the trees they used to construct their dams which, in turn, lead to soil erosion and wreaked havoc on Yellowstone’s ecosystem all the way down to the spawning habits of trout.
In retrospect many of these consequences might have been for foreseen but even in closed systems it is difficult to account for every variable. In today’s infinitely more dynamic and complex world making accurate predictions is virtually impossible. It would behoove everyone – but most especially “Monday morning quarterbacks” — to recall this fact the next time they or anyone else claims to have known in advance a certain outcome was “foreseeable.”
Remember, history’s path to the present day looks clear in the rearview mirror but from the front window where it must be watched and played out in real-time, it is decidedly murkier.
Homework Assignment: Next time you catch yourself, a colleague or a pundit claiming that they knew something was going to happen, ask them to apply some of their “knew” knowledge to forecasting the next big “new” event. Record their responses and monitor their accuracy over time. You’ll likely grow a new perspective on what people later claim to have known in advance.
Related Posts (11 Other Unlearning Strategies)
#11 See What Isn't There … Understand things from more than one way.
#10: Don't Mind Your P's & Q's … The future is changing faster than you think.
#9: Shoot Granny Style … Unlearning may look funny but it's worth it.
#8: Don't Just Do Something, Sit There … Action can be costly.
#7: Argue with Yourself (It's Not Debatable) … Know all sides of an issue.
#6: Become Uncomfortable in Your Own Skin … Different can be good.
#5: Watch Uranus … You can't always tell the "stars" from the real thing.
#4: Don't Listen to Your Elders … Inexperience is what counts.
#3: Study at an Anti-Library … Know — or is it "No" — more books?
#2: Put one foot in back of the other … To go forward.
#1: Engage in some situational unawareness training … Don't yield to a past which no longer exists.